By Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber and Tuvan Gumrukcu
MOSCOW/ANKARA (Reuters) – Russia has informed Turkey that Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters have withdrawn from a strip of land near the Syrian-Turkish border within a deadline set by Ankara and Moscow, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday.
Under an accord clinched by Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin a week ago, Syrian border guards and Russian military police were meant to clear all YPG forces and their weapons from a 30 km (19 mile) “safe zone” south of the border by 6 pm local time (1500 GMT) on Tuesday.
In the next phase of the plan, Russian and Turkish forces are due to conduct joint patrols of a narrower, 10 km strip of land on the Syrian side of the border. Bilateral talks on how those patrols will work are continuing, Erdogan said.
“Russia has conveyed to our relevant authorities that terrorist organisations have fully withdrawn from (the border area),” Erdogan said in a speech at a celebration in Ankara marking the anniversary of the Turkish Republic.
“Of course, our talks (with Russia) will continue tomorrow as before,” he added.
Earlier, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said the YPG had completed their withdrawal ahead of the deadline, but a top aide to Erdogan said Turkey would now see through its planned joint patrols with Russia whether the militia had truly left.
The Putin-Erdogan deal, clinched in the Russian Black Sea town of Sochi, reinforced an existing U.S.-brokered ceasefire that had halted Turkey’s offensive in northeast Syria targeting the YPG, which Ankara views as a terrorist organisation because of its links to Kurdish insurgents in southeast Turkey.
Russia’s defence ministry, citing Major General Yuri Borenkov, a senior military official working on Syria, said 68 Kurdish defence units comprising 34,000 people had left the “safe zone” with their weapons and equipment by the deadline.
Borenkov also said the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – a close ally of Moscow – had set up 84 border outposts on the Syrian-Turkish border.
A Russian delegation is currently in Turkey for talks on how the patrols will work and on the wider security situation in northeast Syria. Turkey’s defence ministry said the delegation held a second day of talks on Tuesday, without saying whether the two countries had yet agreed how to carry out the patrols.
“Joint patrols will start soon,” Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said on Tuesday evening.
In an interview in Tuesday’s edition of the Sabah newspaper, Akar had complained that some Kurdish YPG forces remained in the area of the Turkish-Syrian border.
Akar also said there were still around 1,000 YPG fighters in the border town of Manbij and a further 1,000 in nearby Tel Rifat. The two towns are to the west of the strip of territory that Turkey wants to turn into a “safe zone” but Syrian and Russian forces are also meant to clear them of YPG forces.
“Turkey and Russia set a 150-hour deadline for the YPG terrorists to leave the safe zone. The time is up. We will establish, through joint patrols, whether or not the terrorists have actually withdrawn,” said Fahrettin Altun, Erdogan’s communications director.
Turkey launched its offensive in northeast Syria after President Donald Trump said he was pulling 1,000 U.S. military personnel from the area. Turkey’s NATO allies, including the United States, have criticised Ankara’s actions, fearing it will undermine the fight against Islamic State.
The YPG is the main component in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which has been a key ally of the United States against the Islamic State militants.
Russia has emerged as the key foreign power in Syria, its influence further bolstered by the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the northeast.
(Additional reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun in Istanbul; Writing by Gareth Jones; Editing by Dominic Evans)