Syrian Kurd Militia Signals Pullback Possible, Turkey Talks Tough As Hurdles Remain
By RFE/RL October 20, 2019
A Syrian Kurdish militia leader has said his forces will withdraw from a border area in northeastern Syria to comply with a U.S.-brokered cease-fire deal if Turkish-led forces allow remaining Kurdish forces and civilians to leave an embattled city there.
The statement came with some reports alleging violations of a fragile truce along Turkey's border with Syria, two days after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed a temporary halt to fighting to allow Kurdish forces time to pull back from regions under assault in Ankara's military drive.
Redur Khalil of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which has been supplied U.S. weaponry in the fight against Islamic State (IS) militants in the region, said late on October 19 that SDF troops will move back 30 kilometers from the Turkish-Syrian border in a 120-kilometer stretch between Ras al-Ayn and Tal Aybad if the evacuations are permitted of those cities.
Even with its built-in contingency, the statement appeared to be the first public acknowledgement by the SDF that they might pull back.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on October 20 that Ankara di not want "a single Kurdish militant" left in its planned "safe zones."
He added that Turkey will discuss with Russia, whose forces are fighting in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the removal of Kurdish militia fighters from the Manbij and Kobani regions of Syria.
Erdogan is scheduled to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi on October 22.
Tens of thousands of civilians have fled cities caught up in the fighting, and many groups fear a humanitarian disaster, particularly as images emerged of apparent abuse and summary executions by Turkish forces.
International outcry had mounted at the offensive by NATO-member Turkey, including from European leaders slapping arms boycotts on Ankara and U.S. President Donald Trump threatening to "ruin" Turkey's economy if it overstepped.
Trump's October 6 order to remove U.S. troops in northeastern Syria, where they were cooperating with allied Kurdish forces who oppose Assad and had waged an extended battle against IS radicals, was seen by many as green-lighting the Turkish operation.
Critics called Trump's decision a "betrayal" of U.S.-allied Kurds, and many expressed concerns that the thousands of IS prisoners being held by the Kurdish militias would be able to flee during the fighting.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence in Ankara on October 17 announced a deal that included a suspension of Turkey's week-old military operation to clear a Kurdish-held swath of northeastern Syria.
Under the deal declared by Pence, all fighting was to halt for five days and the United States was to help facilitate the withdrawal of Kurdish-led troops from a "safe zone" sought by Turkey along the border.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on October 19 that the approximately 1,000 troops being withdrawn from Syria would most likely be transferred to western Iraq to focus on the fight against IS.
Meanwhile, Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and eight other senior members of Congress from both parties were in Jordan this weekend to meet with King Abdullah II and other top officials. In a statement released on October 19, Pelosi said the visit by the bipartisan group was coming at "a critical time for the security and stability of the region."
Despite the cease-fire, Turkish-backed Syrian fighters on October 19 clashed with Kurdish-led forces. The two sides blamed each another for the violations.
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Turkish-backed forces had crossed into Syria and advanced toward the Kurdish-held town of Shakariya.
Erdogan used tough language in a televised speech on October 19 to say what Kurdish forces in northern Syria could expect if they did not withdraw as agreed with the United States.
Erdogan warned that if the Kurdish withdrawal was not completed by October 22, "we will start where we left off and continue to crush the terrorists' heads."
He said he planned to discuss the new "safe zone" at a meeting this week with Putin, but said Ankara will "implement its own plans" if an agreement is not reached on the limits of the deployment of Syrian government forces.
Thousands of people in Paris and in the German city of Cologne demonstrated against Turkey's military offensive in northern Syria on October 19.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, and dpa
Copyright (c) 2019. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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