Around 300 more Russian military police arrived in Syria, the defence ministry said, under an accord between Ankara and Moscow which halted Turkey’s military incursion into north-east Syria.
The deal, reached on Tuesday by Presidents Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin, requires Russian military police and Syrian border guards remove all Kurdish YPG militia from 30 km of the Turkish border by next Tuesday.
The military police, from the southern Russian region Chechnya, will patrol and help with withdrawal of Kurdish forces and weapons to the Syrian-Turkish border, Interfax news agency reported the ministry as saying.
Ankara regards the YPG as a terrorist group aligned with Kurdish militants who have waged an insurgency in southeast Turkey since 1984. Turkey launched its cross-border offensive against the YPG on October 9 after US President Trump ordered US forces out of north-east Syria.
On Thursday, the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) accused Turkey of a large land offensive targeting three villages despite the truce and forcing thousands of civilians to flee.
Turkey’s Defence Ministry did not comment directly on the SDF report but said five military personnel were wounded in an attack by the YPG militia around the border town Ras al Ain, near the three villages.
Russia said the peace plan was going ahead smoothly and RIA news agency quoted an SDF official as saying Kurdish fighters had withdrawn from the border area. It also said the Kurds were ready to discuss joining the Syrian army once Syria’s crisis was settled politically.
The deal agreed with Putin built on and widened a previous US-brokered ceasefire and helped end fighting. Trump lifted sanctions on Turkey imposed over its incursion.
UN special envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, told Reuters the ceasefire seemed to be holding “by and large” as major powers gather in Geneva ahead of the first meeting of Syria’s Constitutional Committee next week.
Turkey hosts some 3.6 million refugees who fled the eight-year-old war in Syria and plans to settle up to two million refugees in a “safe zone” on the Syrian side of the border.
An Amnesty International report said Turkey was forcibly sending refugees back to Syria. Ankara denies sending any Syrians back against their will.
Next Tuesday, under the terms of the Sochi deal, Russian and Turkish forces will start patrolling a 10km strip in north-east Syria where US troops were deployed alongside their former Kurdish allies.
The arrival of the Russian police marks a shift in the regional balance of power two weeks after Trump started pulling out US forces, a move criticised in Washington and elsewhere as a betrayal of the Americans’ former Kurdish allies.
It highlighted a growing security relationship between Russia, now the dominant power inside Syria, and NATO member Turkey.
A US defence official said Washington was committed to reinforcing its military position in Syria “with additional military assets” – a clear sign it has dropped plans for a full withdrawal from Syria and may add capabilities to strengthen American forces remaining in the country.
Turkey’s military operation was widely condemned by its NATO allies, which said it was causing a fresh humanitarian crisis in Syria’s eight-year conflict and could let Islamic State prisoners held by the YPG escape and regroup.
The situation in Syria is expected to be discussed by NATO defence ministers meeting in Brussels. US and Turkish ministers are among those attending.