Kurdish militants began pulling out of a key Syrian border town on Sunday in a significant boost to a fragile US-brokered deal to halt at Turkish offensive in north-east Syria.
A convoy of 86 vehicles was leaving Ras al-Ain, which has been at the centre of more than a week of clashes, the Turkish defence ministry said, adding that it was co-ordinating with the US. Kino Gabriel, a spokesman for the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, said the group had evacuated all its fighters from the town. “We don’t have any more fighters in the city,” he said in a statement.
The withdrawal comes after both sides accused each other of violating the deal which was mediated by the US on Thursday after fighting triggered by the Turkish offensive against the SDF killed scores of people and forced at least 160,000 people to flee their homes.
Under the truce, Ankara agreed to halt its offensive to allow the Kurdish militants, which have been armed and trained by the US, to withdraw from the border area. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said he wants to create a “safe zone” 440km along the frontier and 30km deep into Syria that is cleared of the Kurdish fighters.
Turkey does not distinguish between Syrian Kurdish militants and the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), which has waged a three-decade-long insurgency against the Turkish state. Mr Erdogan has long pressed Washington to agree to the creation of a buffer zone along the border.
However over the past week, some of the towns in the area have fallen under the control of Syria regime forces, supported by Russia, after the SDF struck a deal with Damascus in a bid to help stem the Turkish north-east incursion. It means that Syrian government troops have been able to return to the oil-rich for the first time in years.
Mevlut Cavusoglu, Turkey’s foreign minister, said on Sunday that Mr Erdogan would discuss the removal of SDF forces from the towns of Kobani and Manbij, where Syrian government forces are present, at talks with Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, on Tuesday. Syrian regime forces moved into the two strategically important towns last week.
The talks between Mr Erdogan and Mr Putin, which will be held in Sochi towards the end of the five-day deadline for the withdrawal of the Kurdish militants, underscore Russia’s role as the pivotal powerbroker in Syria.
Moscow intervened militarily in Syria’s civil war in 2015 to back Bashar al-Assad and swung a conflict that has now dragged on more than eight years in Damascus’s favour.
The Assad regime has reasserted its control over much of the country, with the opposition controlling one last stronghold in Idlib in north-west Syria. Russia’s foreign ministry said in a statement on Saturday that a Russian delegation had met Mr Assad and discussed the situation in the north-east.
“Russia plays an important role in carrying messages between Damascus and Ankara,” said Hasan Selim Ozertem, an independent Turkish security analyst. “If Erdogan feels he has Putin on his side and is unhappy with the extent of the YPG [Kurdish militia] withdrawal, then the operation will likely resume west of Tal Abyad. Erdogan expects to receive certain guarantees from Putin on Manbij, where Syrian regime troops are present. If he doesn’t, then we could expect the operation to continue.”
The Kurdish militants, which were backed by the US to fight Isis in north-east Syria, did not confront the regime during the civil war but used the conflict and the battle against Isis to carve out an autonomous region outside of Damascus’s control.
The Kurdish militants were left vulnerable to the Turkish attack after US President Donald Trump announced he was pulling back from border region, paving the way for Ankara to launch its offensive.
Mr Trump then announced he was withdrawing the 1,000 American troops from the country, despite widespread criticism from within his own Republican party that it would mean abandoning Washington’s local ally, the SDF, while emboldening the Assad regime and its foreign backers, Russia and Iran.
Mark Esper, the US defence secretary, told reporters at the weekend that the US troops being withdrawn would be redeployed in western Iraq, where they would continue operations against Isis.
Mr Erdogan said on Friday that he would accept Syrian regime troops being in the north-east as long as the Kurdish militants are not in the border region. He has vowed to “crush the heads of the terrorists” if they do not pull back.
“If Damascus folds the SDF into its forces and removes its heavy weapons and reaches an acceptable political arrangement, then there isn’t anything for Turkey to do,” Mr Ozertem said. “But if the SDF continues to pose a threat to Turkey by keeping its heavy weapons, Turkey will intervene.”