Russian Troops Enter Syria-Turkey Border Zone; Moscow Accuses US of Fueling Kurdish Separatism

Patrick Goodenough | October 24, 2019 | 1:44am EDT
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Russian military vehicles drive towards Kobane in northeastern Syria on Wednesday. ) (Photo by AFP via Getty Images)

( – Russian troops rolled into Kobane in northeastern Syria on Wednesday, on a mission to oversee the withdrawal of Syrian Kurdish fighters and their weapons from the area in line with an agreement reached by the Russian and Turkish presidents a day earlier.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the United States of having openly tried to create a Kurdish “quasi-state” on sovereign Syrian territory, but said all such separatist projects would now be thwarted.

Under the deal reached by President Vladimir Putin and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Russian military police and Assad regime border guards will together manage the withdrawal of Kurdish YPG fighters from a 30-kilometer wide strip of Syrian territory adjacent to the border with Turkey.

According to a map released by Russia’s defense ministry, this will apply to the entire length of the Syria-Turkey border from the Euphrates River in the west to the border with Iraq in the east – except for the central area which is currently occupied by Turkish forces who invaded on Oct. 9

The Turkish offensive, “Operation Peace Spring,” was designed to clear the area of the YPG – which Turkey’s Islamist president defines as terrorists – and the de-facto autonomous Kurdish zone, to enable the resettling there of millions of Syrian refugees now in Turkey.

The offensive has now been halted, following the end of a temporary ceasefire negotiated last week by Vice President Mike Pence, but Turkish forces will remain in that central area for now. Erdogan claims to have no designs on Syrian territory and says their presence there will not be open ended.

YPG fighters are a key component of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an effective ally in the U.S.-led campaign to defeat ISIS and its “caliphate.”

The Erdogan-Putin deal gives the Russians and Assad regime forces 150 hours, until Tuesday, to ensure that the YPG withdraws to south of the 30 kilometer line. Following that, Russia and Turkey will begin join patrols in a strip extending 10 kilometers from the border. (The agreement also requires the YPG to withdraw from two key towns west of the Euphrates, Manbij and Tel Rifaat.)

Although Moscow opposed the Turkish incursion, its interests in the area do benefit from it: Russia intervened in the civil war to prop up its embattled ally in Damascus, and helping Bashar Assad’s regime to extend its effective control over all of Syria again would necessitate an end to the de-facto autonomous Kurdish region.

Known as the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, and with the SDF effectively serving as its armed forces, the zone encompassed a large swathe of Syrian territory, stretching across parts of four provinces in the country’s northeast – Aleppo, Raqqa, al-Hasakah, and Deir ez-Zor.

Deir ez-Zor is the region where President Trump has now confirmed some U.S. troops will remain to safeguard oilfields which the SDF wrested from ISIS' control in 2017.

What future support the U.S. may provide to the SDF remains unclear, but Trump spoke by phone Wednesday to SDF commander Gen. Mazloum Abdi, who said in a tweet posted by the SDF press office afterwards that “President Trump promised to maintain partnership with SDF and long-term support at various spheres.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, speak to reporters in Sochi on Tuesday. (Photo: Russian foreign ministry)


At a press conference with his Turkish counterpart after the Putin-Erdogan meeting in Sochi, Lavrov accused the U.S. and others of fueling Kurdish separatism inside Syria.

“The situation on the eastern bank of the Euphrates raises some flags,” he said. “It is in that area, beyond the control of the [Syrian] government, that the United States and the U.S.-led coalition have been actively creating comfortable accommodations, complete with electricity and water supplies, and social and health services.”

“Moreover, they were not even hiding that they wanted to create a quasi-state there,” Lavrov continued.

He said the just-signed Russia-Turkey agreement had rejected “all separatist games in Syria.”

“I am sure that the implementation of this memorandum will strongly interfere with these plans,” he said. “In the final analysis, we will work to nullify them.”

Testifying on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, U.S. special envoy for Syria James Jeffrey expressed skepticism about Russia’s pledge to see YPG fighters leave the area, calling it “not particularly believable.”

On Wednesday, however, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that if the YPG does do not retreat, the Russian and Syrian personnel will stand aside and the Kurdish fighters will then face “the weight of the Turkish military machine.”

As he traveled back home from Sochi, Erdogan told Turkish reporters that if Russia does not keep its commitments, Turkey would not hesitate to take the necessary steps.

He said the two million Syrians he wants to return to northern Syria – on a voluntary basis – include some 350,000 Kurds.

Erdogan also complained that Turkey has had no offers of international help to finance the resettlement of the refugees. He would now appeal to the United Nations, he said, voicing hope of the possibility it could host an “international donor conference” to raise funds.

Erdogan plans to meet with Trump at the White House on Nov. 13, and said he may also meet with the British, French and German leaders on the sidelines of a NATO summit in early December.

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