Russian forces in Syria headed for the border with Turkey Wednesday 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 Tuesday in Sochi also requires Kurdish militia to pull back to a line 30 kilometres from the border along its entire length, forcing them to relinquish control of some of their main towns.
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.
On Wednesday, the Rossiya-24 television channel and TASS news agency quoted Russia’s defence ministry as saying a convoy of Russian military police had crossed the Euphrates River at noon (0900 GMT) 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 fighters and their weapons from within 30 kilometres of the Turkish-Syrian border, as per the Sochi deal.
This withdrawal must be finalised within 150 hours.
Russian and Turkish patrols will then start in two zones stretching 10 kilometres to the east and west of Turkey’s safe zone, which is about 120 kilometres long and 32 kilometres deep.
This will allow Turkey to patrol with Russia in areas inside Syria that were not part of its offensive.
A spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said Russian military police patrolled the key city of Kobani on Wednesday.
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.
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.
In a phone call on Tuesday night with Putin, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad said in reference to the Kurds that ‘those with separatist designs were responsible for what events have come to’.
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.
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.
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