MOSCOW, Oct 23 (Reuters) – Russia warned Syrian Kurdish 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 km (19 miles) into Syria, under the deal struck by presidents Vladimir Putin and 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 his ally President Bashar al-Assad’s forces to northeast Syria for the first time in years, by endorsing the deployment of Syrian border guards from noon (0900 GMT) on Wednesday.
Six days later, Russian and Turkish forces will jointly start to patrol a 10 km strip of land in northeast Syria where U.S. troops for years were deployed along with their former Kurdish allies.
Those changes reflect the dizzying pace of changes in Syria since President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of U.S. 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.
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 spokesman 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 United States 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.
The Kurdish-led SDF were Washington’s main allies in the fight to dismantle Islamic State’s 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 defense sales agency was quoted by the Interfax news agency on Wednesday as saying Moscow could deliver more S-400 missile defense systems to Turkey.
Turkey, a NATO member, has already been frozen out of a program to buy and help produce F-35 jets and faces possible U.S. sanctions for buying the S-400 systems, which Washington says are incompatible with NATO’s defenses and threaten the F-35 if operated near the stealth fighter.
Overnight, Turkey’s defense ministry said that the United States had 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.”
Three Turkish officials told Reuters 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.”
(Writing by Dominic Evans Editing by Gareth Jones)