Erdoğan threatens to ramp up assault on Kurds in Syria 'safe zone'

Bethan McKernan Turkey and Middle East correspondent
Photograph: Mikhail Metzel/Tass

The Turkish president has threatened to press ahead with an operation against Kurdish-led forces in Syria “even more strongly” if promises made by the US regarding the withdrawal of Kurdish fighters have not been met by the time a five-day ceasefire expires.

Up to 1,300 fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are yet to vacate Ankara’s proposed border “safe zone”, as per the terms of a ceasefire announced by the US vice-president, Mike Pence, in Ankara last week, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told reporters before flying to Russia.

Erdoğan is meeting Vladimir Putin in Sochi on Tuesday for talks expected to focus on the size and scope of the planned buffer zone before the pause in fighting ends at 10pm local time (1900 GMT).

Turkish troops, allied Syrian rebel proxies, the SDF, and soldiers belonging to both the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, and his Russian allies are all now present in the border area after Donald Trump announced he would withdraw US troops, paving the way for Ankara to launch an attack on the SDF on 9 October.

As a result of the Turkish offensive, Syria’s Kurdish officials struck a deal with Assad, their former enemy, for military reinforcements in the border area.

Trump’s withdrawal of the remaining 1,000 US special forces from Kurdish-held Syria means Moscow and Ankara have emerged as the two main foreign players in Syria’s long war.

Russia has previously demanded that Turkey respect Syria’s territorial integrity. Putin is likely to seek commitments from Erdoğan on Tuesday.

“The most important thing for us is achieving long-term stability in Syria and the region,” President Putin’s foreign policy adviser, Yuri Ushakov, said ahead of the talks on Tuesday. “We believe this can only be achieved by restoring the unity of Syria.”

Despite the ceasefire, intermittent fighting between the SDF and Ankara’s Syrian rebel proxies has continued.

Turkish forces in the northern Syrian town of Tel Abyad. Photograph: Xinhua/Barcroft Media

Kino Gabriel, the SDF spokesman, confirmed over the weekend that all its fighters had evacuated the town of Ras al-Ayn, one of the two border towns bearing the brunt of the Turkish attack, as part of the US-brokered pause.

Redur Khalil, a senior SDF official, also said that following the evacuation of the remaining civilians and fighters from Ras al-Ayn, his fighters would pull back from the strip of land between the town and Tel Abyad, which is also under Turkish attack.

Ankara has stuck to its original proposal of a 270-mile long (440km), 20-mile deep buffer zone, but the SDF has only acknowledged the 75-mile area between Ras al-Ayn and Tel Abyad.

The US-brokered agreement struck last Thursday did not specify the zone’s size. Previous agreements between Washington and Ankara over a “safe zone” along the Syria-Turkish border have floundered over diverging definitions of the area.

Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria, which effectively green-lighted the Turkish attack, has been widely condemned as a betrayal of the US’s military partner in the five-year-long campaign to defeat Islamic State.

Ankara, however, has long maintained that the main Kurdish unit within the SDF is indistinguishable from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), which has waged war against the Turkish state for decades.