New Russia-Turkey Deal Aims to Push Syrian Kurds Back From More Areas Along the Border

By Dimitri Simes | October 22, 2019 | 9:45pm EDT
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi. (Photo: The Kremlin)

Moscow (CNSNews.com) – Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan reached a deal Tuesday to remove Syrian Kurdish fighters from territory in northeastern Syria and establish joint Russian-Turkish patrols in the area.

After nearly six hours of talks at the Black Sea resort of Sochi, the two leaders announced agreement on a plan to clear the People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters from the border region – including from the strategic Kurdish outposts of Manbij and Tel Rifaat.

Starting on Wednesday, Russian military police and Assad regime border guards will oversee the withdrawal of YPG fighters and weapons to beyond 30 kilometers of the Turkish border.

Russia and its Assad regime ally will then have 150 hours, starting at midnight on Wednesday, to ensure the removal of all YPG fighters from the area. Thereafter, Russia and Turkey will set up joint patrols of the area to within 10 kilometers of the Syria-Turkey border.

A five-day U.S.-brokered “pause” in Turkey’s military offensive against the YPG – key U.S. allies in the fight against ISIS, but viewed as terrorists by Ankara – expired on Tuesday.

That agreement dealt solely with a central portion of the strip of territory which Turkey wants as a “buffer zone” – specifically, the area invaded by the Turks in their “Operation Peace Spring” on October 9. The new agreement with Russia applies to parts of the border territory falling to the east and west of the Operation Peace Spring zone.

Turkey’s incursion caused visible friction with Russia, which has long argued that foreign militaries not invited by the Assad regime have no right to be in Syria. (Russian forces are there with the regime’s permission.)

Last week, Russia’s special envoy on Syria Alexander Lavrentiev called the offensive “unacceptable” and insisted it remain limited in time and scope.

During a joint press conference with Erdogan after their meeting, Putin adopted a more sympathetic tone, saying Russia took seriously Turkey’s security concerns in northeastern Syria.

“We share Turkey’s concerns about the growing threat of terrorism and ethnic and religious disputes in that region,” he said. “We believe these disputes and separatist sentiments have been fueled artificially from the outside.”

At the same, Putin reiterated Russia’s objection to any “illegal foreign military presence” in Syria. He urged Turkey to reestablish diplomatic ties with Damascus, which Ankara broke off in 2012 to protest the Assad regime’s crackdown on dissent and resulting civil war.

Erdogan said Turkey has no territorial designs on Syria and would continue working with Russia in a bid to bring the country’s eight-year civil war to an end.

Turkey offered some important concessions to Russia in Tuesday’s deal, according to Alexey Khlebnikov, a Middle East analyst at the Russian International Affairs Council. The stipulation that Turkey’s military patrols with Russia extend only 10 kilometers into Syrian territory falls short of Erdogan’s initial plan to position troops up to 32 kilometers from the border.

Nevertheless, Khlebnikov told CNSNews.com that Russia should not be seen as a clear-cut winner of the U.S. decision earlier this month to withdraw 1,000 troops from northeastern Syria.

While the move presented Russia with an opportunity to demonstrate its diplomatic clout in the Middle East, it also saddled Moscow with new burdens, he said.

“Russia now ends up in a situation where it has more uncertainties and responsibilities, rather than 100 percent guaranteed success,” Khlebnikov said, adding that “negotiations between Damascus and Ankara are not going to be an easy task.”

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