Russia warns Syrian-Kurdish YPG must pull back or face Turkish army

Russia warned Syrian-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces on Wednesday they face further armed conflict with Turkey if they fail to comply with a Russian-Turkish accord calling for their withdrawal from the entire length of Syria’s northeastern border with Turkey.

Moscow’s warning came shortly before Russian and Syrian security forces were due to start overseeing the removal of YPG fighters and weapons at least 30 kilometres into Syria, under the deal struck by Russian and Turkish presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

A complete pullout of the YPG would mark a victory for Erdogan, who launched a cross-border offensive on Oct. 9 to drive the Kurdish militia from the border and create a “safe zone” for the return of Syrian refugees.

The accord, which expands on a U.S.-brokered deal last week, also underlines Putin’s dominant influence in Syria and seals the return of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces to northeast Syria for the first time in years. The Kremlin has endorsed the deployment of Syrian border guards from noon local time on Wednesday.

Next Tuesday, Russian and Turkish forces will jointly start to patrol a 10 kilometre strip of land in northeast Syria where U.S. troops for years were deployed along with their former Kurdish allies.

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during their meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Tuesday. (Sergei Chirikov/Reuters)

Those changes reflect the dizzying pace of changes in Syria since U.S. President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of American forces from northern Syria earlier this month, shaking up the military balance across a quarter of the country after eight years of conflict.

Kurdish militia commanders have yet to respond to the deal reached in Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi, and it was not immediately clear how their withdrawal could be enforced.

Russia’s warning 

A joint Turkish-Russian statement issued after six hours of talks between Putin and Erdogan said they would establish a “joint monitoring and verification mechanism” to oversee implementation of the agreement.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov was more blunt. If Kurdish forces did not retreat, Syrian border guards and Russian military police would have to fall back. “And remaining Kurdish formations would then fall under the weight of the Turkish army,” he said.

In a swipe at Washington, which has called into question how the deal will be guaranteed, Peskov said the U.S. had been the closest ally of the Kurdish fighters but had now betrayed them.

“Now they [the Americans] prefer to leave the Kurds at the border and almost force them to fight the Turks,” he said in remarks to Russian news agencies.

Turkey-backed Syrian rebel fighters near the border town of Tal Abyad in Syria on Tuesday. (Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were Washington’s main allies in the fight to dismantle the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) self-declared caliphate in Syria. Trump’s decision to pull troops out was criticized by U.S. lawmakers, including fellow Republicans, as a betrayal.

In a further sign of growing ties between Ankara and Moscow, which have alarmed the U.S. administration, the head of Russia’s defence sales agency was quoted on Wednesday as saying Moscow could deliver more S-400 missile defence systems to Turkey.

Overnight, Turkey’s Defence Ministry said the U.S. told Ankara the YPG had completed its withdrawal from the area of Turkey’s military offensive.

There was no need to initiate another operation outside the current area of operation at this stage, the ministry said, effectively ending a military offensive that began two weeks ago and drew global criticism.

Turkey reviews military plans 

While Tuesday’s deal in Sochi addresses Turkey’s call for the YPG to be pushed back from the border, it also means Ankara will have to deepen its security coordination with Damascus after years of hostility between Erdogan and Assad.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Wednesday that Turkey has no direct contact with Assad’s government, but “there could be contact at the intelligence level, this is natural.”

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visits Syrian army troops in war-torn northwestern Idlib province of Syria on Tuesday. (SANA/Handout via Reuters )

Three Turkish officials said this week Ankara was already holding covert contacts with Damascus to avert direct conflict in northeast Syria.

Ankara may also have to moderate its own military ambitions in the region. Turkish security sources said Ankara was re-evaluating a plan to set up 12 observation posts in northeastern Syria in the wake of the deal.

That change reflects the fact that Turkey, which had aimed to be the dominant force in the “safe zone” area, will now have to share that territory with Assad and Putin, who have both said that Turkish forces cannot remain in Syria in the long term.

“The most significant part of the Russian-Turkish agreement is the arrival of the Syrian border guard to the northeast, something both Damascus and Russia sought for a long time,” said Yury Barmin, a Middle East specialist at Moscow Policy Group.

“This also means de facto recognition of Assad by Erdogan.”

Kurdish man sets self on fire outside UN

In a suspected public display of disapproval over the recent events in Syria, a Kurdish man in his 30s set himself on fire outside the UN refugee agency headquarters in Geneva on Wednesday

The man, who resides in Germany, was flown by helicopter to the specialized burns unit at the university hospital in Lausanne, where he is receiving treatment, said Silvain Guillaume-Gentil, Geneva police spokesperson.

“Given his state, it was impossible to ask him about his motive, but we imagine that it was the political situation.”

“We are saddened and shocked [about] an incident of self-immolation that happened in front of our Geneva headquarters this morning,” said Andrej Mahecic, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The man had set himself ablaze and then tried to enter the UNHCR building, but security officers and medical services intervened and the fire was put out, Mahecic said, adding: “We hope he will recover.”

The UNHCR building is across the street from a collective shelter for asylum seekers, including Syrian-Kurds.

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