WED 11 - 12 - 2019
Oct 24, 2019
The Daily Star
Russian police deploy on Syria border
MOSCOW/ANKARA: Russian military police started deploying on Syria’s northeast border Wednesday under a deal with Turkey to drive Kurdish fighters from the region, and U.S. President Donald Trump said Turkey’s offensive against the Kurdish forces was over. Just two weeks after Trump pulled out U.S. special forces, allowing Turkish troops to sweep into northeast Syria and target the U.S.’ Kurdish former allies, Russia’s police deployment shows how swiftly the balance of power in the area has shifted.
Turkey “paused” its offensive last week under a U.S.-brokered deal that called for Kurdish YPG fighters to withdraw, and then secured Russian support this week for a wider deal requiring the YPG’s removal from the whole northeast border.
In an address from the White House, Trump said Turkey had announced it was making last week’s cease-fire permanent, paving the way for the U.S. to lift sanctions it had imposed on Turkish imports in response to the cross-border assault.
Turkey’s military operation was widely condemned by its NATO and EU allies, who said it was causing a fresh humanitarian crisis in Syria’s 8-year-old conflict and could let Daesh (ISIS) prisoners held by the YPG escape and regroup.
“Early this morning, the government of Turkey informed my administration that they would be stopping combat and their offensive in Syria, and making the cease-fire permanent,” Trump said, adding he had given instructions to lift sanctions on Ankara “unless something happens that we are not happy with.”
The police arrival in Ain al-Arab (Kobani in Kurdish) marked the start of a mission by Russian and Syrian security forces to push the YPG at least 30 kilometers into Syria under an accord reached Tuesday by Presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
It also underlines Putin’s dominant influence in Syria and seals the return of his ally President Bashar Assad’s forces along the northeastern border for the first time in years.
A complete pullout of the YPG, which Ankara considers terrorist because of its links to insurgents inside Turkey, would mark a victory for Erdogan, who has said he is seeking to create a “safe zone” for the return of Syrian refugees. Ain al-Arab, where the Russian military police deployed, is of special significance to the Kurdish fighters, who fought off Daesh militants trying to seize the city in 2014-15 in one of the fiercest battles of Syria’s conflict.
Next Tuesday, Russian and Turkish forces will jointly start to patrol a 10 kilometer strip of land in northeast Syria where U.S. troops had long been deployed along with their former Kurdish allies.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said 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: “Now they [the Americans] prefer to leave the Kurds at the border and almost force them to fight the Turks.”
The Kurdish-led SDF was Washington’s main ally in the fight to dismantle Daesh’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.
SDF commander Mazloum Kobani said Wednesday Trump had promised to maintain long-term support for the Kurdish-led forces, who have controlled large swaths of northeastern Syria.
In a sign of growing ties between Ankara and Moscow, the head of Russia’s defense sales agency was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying Moscow could deliver more S-400 missile defense systems to Turkey. NATO member Turkey 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 fighter.
In an interview with Reuters, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said the disagreements over the F-35 could be overcome. Despite criticism from allies over the Syria incursion and its growing ties with Moscow, Turkey remained at the heart of NATO, he said.
While Tuesday’s deal 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.
Turkey 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. Russia’s Defense Ministry later said the Syrian government would set up 15 border posts.
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