Kurds Lose Again as Russia Brokers New Deal

Fighting continues as Russian and Turkish troops gear up to take control of a significant chunk of formerly Kurdish-held territory.

Irdal Walid, a 19-year-old Syrian Democratic Forces fighter, who was wounded in Turkish airstrikes on Ras al-Ain, receives treatment in the northern Syrian town of Hasakah on Oct. 21.
Irdal Walid, a 19-year-old Syrian Democratic Forces fighter, who was wounded in Turkish airstrikes on Ras al-Ain, receives treatment in the northern Syrian town of Hasakah on Oct. 21. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images

Clashes between Syrian Kurdish fighters and Turkish-backed forces continued across northern Syria this week even as the Turkish and Russian presidents hashed out a new deal that paves the way for Ankara and Moscow to take control of a significant chunk of formerly Kurdish-held land. 

Reports of continuing violence emerged as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed Tuesday to a deal that would force the People’s Protection Units (YPG) to retreat roughly 20 miles from a 260-mile stretch of the border. Starting at noon on Wednesday the YPG would have about a week to withdraw, after which time Turkey and Russia would begin conducting joint patrols along most of the Syrian-Turkish border—an arrangement similar to the one established between Turkey and the United States in the weeks before the invasion.

The agreement is yet another win for Erdogan after Trump essentially greenlighted a Turkish military operation into northern Syria that has killed scores of fighters and civilians and displaced hundreds of thousands of Kurds. It cements Turkish gains in the operation—an area roughly 75 miles long and 20 miles deep that Turkey and its Syrian Arab proxies captured from the Kurds—and expands Ankara’s influence in formerly Kurdish-held territory for miles to the west and east of the incursion, including the symbolically significant city of Kobani.

Putin also wins: Russian and Turkish troops will jointly patrol a stretch of the border 6 miles deep to the west and east of the Turkish incursion, cementing Moscow’s position as the new power broker in northern Syria. A large convoy of U.S. military vehicles arrived in Iraq from Syria on Monday, as part of the administration’s plan to pull out all but a few hundred U.S. troops from the country.

“Ironically, the Russians appear to have pushed for and gotten the elements of the ‘security mechanism’ deal that U.S. officials were working on with Turkey before [President Donald] Trump’s October 6 phone call,” tweeted Brett McGurk, the former U.S. envoy to the global coalition to defeat the Islamic State. “Difference: key player now Moscow not Washington.”

The deal comes as a U.S.-brokered pause in the fighting expired on Tuesday, capping days of confusion. The chaos in northern Syria since Vice President Mike Pence announced the temporary cease-fire on Oct. 17 seems to stem from the fact that the U.S.-brokered agreement did not stipulate the exact boundaries of the proposed “safe zone,” a buffer area along the Syrian border that would be enforced by the Turkish Armed Forces, leaving the two sides to draw conflicting conclusions. 

“We only agreed to a cease-fire because we want to protect our civilians,” Ilham Ahmed, the president of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), said during a press conference with Sens. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, and Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, on Capitol Hill on Oct. 21. “But that doesn’t mean that we endorse the Turkish occupation of our area.”

Ahmed made an emergency trip to Washington over the weekend to meet with U.S. leaders and urge them to help end the violence. During the press conference, Graham called for a “demilitarized zone” between Turkey and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the military arm of the SDC, monitored by international forces.

The purported cease-fire, which a U.S. Defense Department spokesman said is “generally holding,” officially expired Oct. 22. But officials and observers debate whether the cease-fire ever truly began. The Syria-Turkey border towns, particularly Ras al-Ain, have seen the brunt of the violence since Turkish-backed forces began the cross-border operation on Oct. 9. Civilians were trapped for days inside Ras al-Ain, after Turkish-backed forces encircled the town and shot at a Kurdish medical convoy and a U.S. humanitarian group trying to get in to evacuate the wounded. 

The patients were finally able to leave on Oct. 19, according to officials with the Kurdish Red Crescent and the private Free Burma Rangers, two of the last aid groups left on the ground in northern Syria.

As of Oct. 22, YPG fighters had withdrawn from an area roughly 70 miles wide between the towns of Tal Abyad in the west and Ras al-Ain in the east on the border with Turkey, according to multiple U.S. and Kurdish sources with knowledge of the situation on the ground.

But the Kurds never agreed to leave the entire area that Turkey attacked, a rectangular piece of land about  20 miles deep that includes “all the historic lands of the Kurds,” said one Kurdish advisor to the SDC, the political arm of the SDF.

“The Kurds never agreed to any boundary,” the advisor said. 

As the temporary cease-fire was set to expire on the afternoon of Oct. 22 Eastern time, the border was calmer, an official with the Kurdish Red Crescent told Foreign Policy, though cautioning that “we don’t know what will happen in the future.”

Roughly half of the civilians in the border towns have fled, the official said. Abdi told multiple outlets over the weekend that the operation has so far claimed more than 500 civilian casualties and displaced more than 400,000 Kurds. In reports reviewed by Foreign Policy, the Kurdish Red Crescent documented scores of cases of civilians injured and killed by the violence, including nine patients with horrific burns from what appeared to be white phosphorous.

Though fighting has ceased in Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain, the violence continues to the west and south, sources said. Turkish-backed forces attacked villages in the Kurdish-held border town of Kobani, about 45 miles west of Tal Abyad—something Pence said Turkey had agreed not to do—on Oct. 22, killing eight fighters, the advisor said. Kobani has outsize symbolic importance for the Kurds, after the SDF recaptured it from the Islamic State in 2015 in one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the campaign against the militant group.

Speaking to Foreign Policy from the contested area, David Eubank, the founder and leader of the Free Burma Rangers, said Turkish proxies on Oct. 21 attacked the SDF and his medical team about 2 miles south of Ras al-Ain. Eubank reported seeing Syrian army troops and vehicles arriving in the town of Tal Tamir, southeast of Ras al-Ain, to face the Turkish forces, as the SDF fell back.

“We were pinned down by [the Free Syrian Army] attack but got out,” Eubank said. “The only thing that has stopped in our area is airstrikes—so not a cease-fire.” 

Update, Oct. 22, 2019: This story has been updated to include new developments. 

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

Tag: Syria

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