Kurdish fighters evacuated a besieged Syrian town on Sunday, the first pullback under the U.S.-brokered ceasefire deal, opening the way to a broader withdrawal of the Kurdish-led forces from along the Turkish border.
Kino Gabriel of the main Kurdish-led group in the country, the Syrian Democratic Forces, said they have no armed presence in the border town of Ras al-Ayn anymore.
Sunday’s evacuation was part of an agreement to pause military operations with Turkey, a deal reached with American mediation. Since the 120-hour truce began on Thursday evening, there have daily clashes, with occasional shelling, particularly around Ras al-Ayn, where Kurdish fighters have been encircled by Turkish-led forces.
The ceasefire deal only calls for fighters to leave the border area. But Kurdish civilians have been fleeing as well, because without protection, they fear atrocities by the Turkish-backed Syrian forces. Those fighters, who are Arab and often Islamist extremists, have been accused of killings of Kurdish civilians and captured fighters during this campaign and in other Syrian territory seized in Turkish campaigns since 2017.
A senior official in the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Redur Khalil, said that after the Ras al-Ayn evacuation, the forces will withdraw from a zone about 120 kilometres wide and 30-kilometres deep between Ras al-Ayn and the town of Tel Abyad farther west.
Ceasefire expires on Tuesday
Under the accord, that pullback is supposed to be completed by Tuesday evening when the ceasefire — or pause in fighting, as Turkey calls it — runs out.
The Trump administration negotiated the accord after heavy criticism at home and abroad that it had opened the way for the Turkish invasion by abruptly removing its soldiers from northeast Syria . That move abandoned the Kurdish-led force, which had allied with the Americans to fight the bloody, years-long campaign that brought down the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) rule over nearly a third of Syria.
Khalil said the SDF had reached understandings with the Americans to leave the town from the start of the ceasefire but the siege delayed the plans for days. Turkish officials have denied they were preventing the withdrawal of any fighters.
In daily gun battles, Kurdish fighters holed in up in a hospital on the town’s southern edge and nearby neighbourhoods traded fire with the Turkish-backed forces. The SDF said 16 of its fighters had been killed and three wounded the past 24 hours.
Both sides accuse each other of repeatedly violating the three-day-old ceasefire. Turkey’s defence ministry said one of its soldiers was killed Sunday in a Kurdish attack with anti-tank weapons and small arms fire near the border town of Tal Abyad.
That brought the Turkish military’s death toll to seven soldiers since it launched its offensive on Oct. 9.
Medical convoys reach Ras al-Ayn
On Saturday, medical convoys were able to enter Ras al-Ayn for the first time, delivering medical supplies and bringing out 30 wounded and four dead.
The broader Kurdish pullback, if it is carried out, will grant Turkish forces control of the swathe of territory roughly in the middle of the Syrian-Turkish border. The area has been the main theatre of fighting during the offensive, causing the flight of tens of thousands of civilians — Arab and Kurd — from the villages that dot the landscape. At least 160,000 civilians have been displaced by the Turkish assault.
Significant issues remain over the arrangements at the border.
A previous agreement between the U.S. and Turkey over a “safe zone” along the Syria-Turkish border foundered over the diverging definitions of the area.
Erdogan has said the Kurdish fighters must withdraw from a far larger length of the border — from the Euphrates River to the Iraqi border, more than 440 kilometres — or else the Turkish offensive will resume Tuesday.
U.S. officials say the agreement pertains to the 120-kilometre section. Erdogan’s spokesperson, Kalin, confirmed that is the area affected by the pause in fighting, but said Turkey still wants the larger zone.
Turkey considers the Kurdish-led fighters as terrorists because of their links to a Kurdish insurgent group inside Turkey. It says any presence of the group along its borders is an existential threat. Turkey also wants to resettle some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees currently on its soil in the border “safe zone.”
Another question is what the arrangement will be along the rest of the northeastern border, from the Euphrates River to the Iraqi border, most of which remains solely in the hands of Kurdish-led fighters.
When they were abandoned by U.S. troops, the Kurds turned to Russia and secured an agreement for Syrian government forces to deploy in the northeast last week.
So far, the Syrian forces have only moved into one location directly on the border, the town of Kobani, and a few positions further south.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Russian town of Sochi on Tuesday. His spokesperson said he will tell Putin that Ankara does not want either Syrian forces or Kurdish fighters along the border because refugees would not go back to areas under their control.
“We want to create conditions that will be suitable for them to return where they will feel safe.”