Russian forces head for Syrian-Turkish border in blow to Kurds
QAMISHLI, Syria (UPDATED) – Russian forces in Syria headed for the border with Turkey on Wednesday, October 23, to ensure Kurdish fighters pull back after a deal between Moscow and Ankara wrested control of the Kurds' entire heartland.
Kurdish forces, who previously controlled nearly a third of Syria, have lost almost everything after Turkey secured the right to remain fully deployed in an Arab-majority area that was the main target of a two-week-old offensive.
The agreement on Tuesday in Sochi also requires Kurdish militia to pull back to a line 30 kilometers from the border along its entire length (440 kilometers), forcing them to relinquish control of some of their main towns.
US President Donald Trump, accused by the Kurds of betraying Washington's key allies in the fight against the Islamic State jihadist group, called the agreement a "big success".
The deal – hailed as "historic" by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – quashes the Kurdish minority's dreams of a semi-autonomous region and makes way for the absorption of their de facto army into the regime's military.
Erdogan vowed that Turkey would take "the necessary steps" if promises to push Kurdish fighters away from the border were not kept.
On Wednesday, the defense ministry in Moscow said a convoy of Russian military police had crossed the Euphrates River and "advanced towards the Syrian-Turkish border".
Russian military police and Syrian border guards are to "facilitate the removal" of Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) fighters and their weapons from within 30 kilometres (18 miles) of the Turkish-Syrian border, as per the Sochi deal.
This withdrawal must be finalised within 150 hours.
'Kill, displace and occupy'
Russian and Turkish patrols will then start in two zones stretching 10 kilometres (six miles) to the east and west of Turkey's safe zone, which is about 120 kilometres long (75 miles) and 32 kilometres deep.
This will allow Turkey to patrol with Russia in areas inside Syria that were not part of its offensive.
An AFP correspondant near the border town of Kobane saw several military vehicles bearing the Russian flag entering the area on Wednesday.
News agency RIA Novosti quoted the Russian defence ministry as saying military police had met with officials there and were due to start patrolling.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said the area of the "safe zone" was calm on Wednesday.
In the Kurdish-controlled city of Qamishli – excluded from the Sochi agreement – hundreds demonstrated against the deal on Wednesday, saying it amounted to ethnic cleansing and genocide.
"This deal serves the interests of foreign powers and not the interests of the people," said Talaat Youndes, an official with the Kurdish administration.
"Turkey's objective is to kill, displace and occupy the Kurds," he said, as protesters waved flags and chanted slogans against Ankara's invading force.
Turkey's October 9 assault was made possible by a pullback of US troops deployed along the border as a buffer force between their NATO ally Turkey and the Kurdish fighters of the SDF.
The withdrawal by their erstwhile ally left the Kurds completely in the lurch, forcing them to turn to the Damascus regime for protection from an expanded Turkish offensive.
Government forces, who are backed by the Russian military, rushed north within days, ostensibly to pin back Turkish-backed rebels but also to reclaim control of swathes of territory that the regime started leaving in 2012.
Damascus has previously accused Kurds of treason over their alliance with Washington and repeatedly said it would eventually restore government control over all parts of Syria.
The Kremlin on Wednesday accused Washington of betraying the Kurds by withdrawing its forces and leaving allies alone in the face of a Turkish offensive.
"The US were the closest allies for the Kurds for several years. In the end the US abandoned the Kurds, effectively betraying them," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian news agencies.
Meanwhile, Pentagon chief Mark Esper arrived in Baghdad for talks with his Iraqi counterpart Najah al-Shammari as Washington pulled out its remaining troops from northern Syria through Iraq.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu earlier Wednesday said that Moscow had assured Ankara it would not allow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime to cooperate with Kurdish fighters.
But he ruled out any direct talks with the Syrian regime for now.
Despite being on the opposite sides of the Syria conflict, Turkey and Russia have been working together to find a solution to the war.
Tuesday's agreement said the two countries were determined "to combat terrorism in all forms... and to disrupt separatist agendas in Syrian territory".
The deal said efforts would also be launched for the return of refugees to Syria "in a safe and voluntary manner."
Ankara has said some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey can be rehoused inside the safe zone. – Rappler.com