Kurdish forces start Syria-Turkey border pullback
BRUSSELS: Turkey is “heading in the wrong direction” with its incursion into Syria and its deal with Russia to jointly patrol a “safe zone” there, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper warned yesterday. “Turkey put us all in a very terrible situation” by sweeping into northern Syria this month to fight Kurdish militia allied with the US in the fight against the Islamic State group, Esper told a conference in Brussels ahead of a NATO defense ministers’ meeting.
“I think the incursion’s unwarranted,” Esper said. The onus was on Turkey’s NATO allies to now “work together to strengthen our partnership with them, and get them on the trend back to being the strong reliable ally of the past,” he said. The issue of Turkey’s military offensive in Syria is set to dominate the two-day NATO meeting, with diplomats in the organization saying “frank” discussions with Ankara’s representatives have already taken place.
A subsequent arrangement with Russia to clear Kurdish militia that Turkey regards as “terrorists” linked to the outlawed PKK group on its soil has also raised hackles. Yet, while isolated in NATO, Turkey’s strategic position between Europe and the Middle East is seen as too important to jeopardize, so the other alliance members have limited themselves to criticism only. Esper defended the US decision to pull US forces out of northern Syria, effectively opening the path to the Turkish operation.
“The US decision to withdraw less than 50 soldiers from the zone of attack was made after it was made very clear to us that President (Recep Tayyip) Erdogan made the decision to come across the border,” he said. He added that “I was not about to put less than 50 US soldiers in between a 15,000-man-plus Turkish army preceded by Turkish militia and jeopardize the lives of those servicemen”. Nor was he “about to start a fight with a NATO ally,” he said.
Esper acknowledged “there has been some criticism” about the US withdrawal “but nobody’s yet offered a better alternative to what the United States did. We are trying to keep a very strategic perspective.” In his speech and question-and-answer session at the event hosted by the German Marshall Fund think tank, Esper highlighted threats he said were posed by Iran, Russia and, especially and above all, China.
“NATO allies should be looking east,” to China, he said, stating that Beijing’s “heavy hand” was being seen politically, militarily and economically not only in Asia but further abroad, including into Europe with its “belt-and-road” project. Adoption by NATO allies of China’s Huawei company to build 5G telecoms networks would be a threat to intel-sharing within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, he said. “I’ll counsel our allies-if Huawei becomes your provider of choice, this will affect our ability to share intelligence. We can’t trust those networks,” he said, adding: “We need to address those threats with eyes wide open.”
Meanwhile, Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria left several positions along the long border with Turkey yesterday, complying with a deal that sees Damascus, Ankara and Moscow carve up their now-defunct autonomous region. Russian forces have started patrols along the flashpoint border, filling the vacuum left by a US troop withdrawal that effectively handed back a third of the country to the Moscow-backed regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
US President Donald Trump has praised the agreement reached in Sochi by Turkey and Russia and rejoiced that US personnel were leaving the “long blood-stained sand” of Syria, leaving just a residual contingent behind “where they have the oil”. The deal signed in the Black Sea resort by Syria’s two main foreign brokers gives Kurdish forces until Tuesday to withdraw to a line 30 kilometers from the border. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces had pulled out of some areas at the eastern end of the border yesterday.
“The SDF have withdrawn from positions between Derbasiyeh and Amuda in the Hasakeh countryside,” Britain-based war monitor’s head, Rami Abdel Rahman, said. Fighters of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) — the main component of the SDF – remained in many positions along the 440 kilometer border, he added. The Observatory also reported clashes near the town of Tal Tamr between SDF fighters and some of the Syrian former rebels paid by Turkey to fight ground battles.
Russian and Syrian government forces were deploying across the Kurdish heartland where they are tasked with assisting “the removal of YPG elements and their weapons”. Kurdish forces had already vacated a 120-kilometre segment of the border strip – an Arab-majority area between the towns of Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad. The SDF withdrawal from that area came after Turkey and its Syrian proxies launched their deadly cross-border offensive on October 9. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is embattled on the domestic political front, hopes to use the pocket to resettle at least half of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees his country hosts.
Under the Sochi deal, the area will remain under the full control of Turkey, unlike the rest of the projected buffer zone which will eventually be jointly patrolled by Turkey and Russia. Some 300,000 people have fled their homes since the start of the Turkish offensive and the Kurds among them seem unlikely to return. US forces pulled back from the border area earlier this month, in a move the Kurds saw as a betrayal but which Trump had announced last year.
The autonomous Kurdish administration in Syria had hoped that the sacrifices made in the name of the international community to help crush the Islamic State group’s “caliphate” would pay off. But Trump has been keen to keep a promise to remove his troops from Syria, where IS’s “caliphate” was eliminated in March but where conflict continues. “Let someone else fight over this long blood-stained sand,” he said in a White House speech on Wednesday.
That “someone” is undoubtedly Russia, whose status as the main foreign power in Syria is now undisputed, to Assad’s great benefit. “Assad is getting back a third of Syria’s territory without firing a shot,” geographer and Syria specialist Fabrice Balanche said. Some US forces remain in eastern districts of Syria, where government forces have been deploying but have not yet re-established full control.
“We have secured the oil and, therefore, a small number of US troops will remain in the area where they have the oil,” Trump said on Wednesday. The government is keen to reclaim the northeast, which is home to the country’s main oilfields and some of its most fertile farmland. Left in the lurch by the US redeployment, the Kurdish forces seemed to retain some faith in Washington, which still has a huge military presence elsewhere in the Middle East. – Agencies