Kurds pull out from Syria border region as Putin, Erdogan reach buffer zone deal

Hours before Ankara set to resume offensive against US allies, leaders of Turkey and Russia agree to create 20-mile deep area free of Kurdish fighters

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shake hands before their meeting in the Bocharov Ruchei residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, October 22, 2019. (Presidential Press Service via AP, Pool )
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shake hands before their meeting in the Bocharov Ruchei residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, October 22, 2019. (Presidential Press Service via AP, Pool )

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Kurdish fighters completed their pullout from a zone along the Syrian border as required under a US-brokered cease-fire deal hours before it was set to expire Tuesday, US and Kurdish official said, as the leaders of Turkey and Russia said they had reached a deal to push back Kurdish fighters from a safe zone along the border.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hailed “a historic agreement” with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

“According to this agreement, Turkey and Russia will not allow any separatist agenda on Syrian territory,” Erdogan said, addressing reporters alongside Putin after the talks in the Russian city of Sochi.

Erdogan also announced a 150-hour deadline beginning on Wednesday for Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters and their weapons to be moved back 30 kilometers from areas on the Turkish border which are currently outside the scope of the Turkish offensive.

“Within 150 hours starting at 12:00 noon on October 23, YPG terrorists and their weapons will be removed to the depth of 30 kilometers and their… positions will be destroyed,” Erdogan said.

In the areas covered by Tuesday’s deal, Russian-backed Syrian regime forces had been deployed in agreement with Kurdish forces in a bid to stem the Turkish assault.

US military vehicles drive on a street in the town of Tal Tamr on October 20, 2019, after pulling out of their base. (Photo by Delil SOULEIMAN / AFP)

Under a separate agreement between Turkey and the United States reached last week, Kurdish forces were expected to pull out from one central section of Turkey’s proposed “safe zone.”

That deal is due to expire at 1900 GMT on Tuesday but Syrian Kurds say they have withdrawn from the central area concerned between the towns of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn.

In Sochi, Erdogan said that after the 150-hour deadline, Turkish and Russian joint patrols would start in two zones stretching 10 kilometers (six miles) to the east and west of the area of Turkey’s current Operation Peace Spring.

Turkey had threatened to relaunch its offensive if the Kurdish withdrawal was not carried out. A senior Kurdish official, Redur Khalil, said that even after the Kurdish pullout, Turkish troops and their allies were continuing military operations in northeastern Syria outside the withdrawal zone. Ankara has agreed to the specified zone but Turkish officials said they still want to clear Kurdish fighters from their entire shared border.

The Kurdish-led forces notified the White House of the completed withdrawal in a letter, a senior Trump administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the contents of the letter have not yet been publicly disclosed.

In this photo released on the official Facebook page of the Syrian Presidency, Syrian President Bashar Assad, center right, speaks with Syrian troops during his visit to the strategic town of Habeet, in the northwestern province of Idlib, Syria, October 22, 2019. (Facebook page of the Syrian Presidency via AP)

The United States, meanwhile, ran into a new hitch in getting its troops out of Syria, with neighboring Iraq’s military saying Tuesday that the American forces did not have permission to stay on its territory.

The Iraqi announcement seemed to contradict US Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who a day earlier said the forces leaving Syria would deploy in Iraq to fight the Islamic State group.

The conflicting signals underscored how the United States has stumbled from one problem to another after President Donald Trump abruptly ordered their withdrawal. Amid fears the Americans’ departure will revive IS, Esper is considering keeping some troops in Syria to protect oil fields held by Kurdish-led fighters, backing away from the full withdrawal first touted by Trump.

Displaced Syrians sit in the back of a pickup truck as Arab and Kurdish civilians flee amid Turkey’s military assault on Kurdish-controlled areas in northeastern Syria, on October 11, 2019, in the town of Tal Tamr in the countryside of Syria’s northeastern Hasakeh province. (Delil Souleiman/AFP)

After the Iraqi statement, Esper said he would speak to the Iraqi defense minister on Wednesday and underlined that the US has no plans to keep the troops in Iraq “interminably” and intends to “eventually get them home.”

The US pullout opened the door for Turkey to launch its offensive against Kurdish fighters on Oct. 9. After a storm of criticism, Washington moved to broker a five-day ceasefire that was set to expire Tuesday night.

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