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Russia, Turkey agree to jointly remove Kurdish fighters along border

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands in Istanbul on Nov. 19, 2018

KOSTAS TSIRONIS/BLOOMBERG

By KAREEM FAHIM AND SARAH DADOUCH | The Washington Post | Published: October 22, 2019

ISTANBUL — Russia agreed on Tuesday to help remove Syrian Kurdish fighters from a large swath of Turkey's southern border, giving its blessing to a Turkish military operation against a Kurdish-led force that had allied with the United States.

The agreement, reached after an hours-long meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi, addressed several of Turkey's core security demands, including the establishment of a "safe zone" that would push the Kurdish-led force back from its frontier.

And it cemented Russia's role as Syria's central power broker, at a moment when the influence of the United States in the region is dissipating.

The agreement said Russia and the Syrian government, its ally, would start removing Kurdish militias from the border region beginning at noon Wednesday. That expanded on a previous agreement between the United States and Turkey, which had established a Turkish military zone along a narrower strip of the border.

After the Kurdish militias had withdrawn, Turkey and Russia would begin joint patrols in the border region.

The Erdogan government had earlier threatened to restart its military offensive if the Kurdish fighters did not fully withdraw from a predetermined area along Syria's northern border with Turkey by Tuesday evening. If the withdrawal is completed, Ankara has agreed to permanently halt its offensive, which is aimed at creating a vast buffer zone for Turkey along much of its border with Syria.

Erdogan's meeting with Putin, the Syrian government's most powerful supporter, had been widely expected to center on the thorny aftermath of Turkey's military operation and the rapidly shifting Syrian map of control, as U.S. troops withdraw and competing factions rush to fill the void.

"These are very critical days in the region," Erdogan said after being greeted by Putin in Sochi. "The Peace Spring operation and this meeting will create very important opportunities," he added referring to the title Turkey has given its military operation.

There were signs of trouble with the cease-fire even as the meeting in Russia got underway. The Kurdish-led militias, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, said they had only partially completed their withdrawal from an area that stretches roughly 70 miles along Turkey's border, and 20 miles deep into Syrian territory.

Mervan Qamishlo, an SDF spokesman, blamed what he said were ongoing attacks by Turkey and allied forces for the delay and said Kurdish-led forces had withdrawn only from the Syrian town of Ras al-Ayn.

"It seems that Turkey is not serious about the agreement," he said in a text message on Tuesday morning. "Until now, there is no withdrawal from other areas."

Erdogan said shortly before departing for Russia on Tuesday that between 700 and 800 Kurdish fighters have withdrawn as part of the agreement. "It is said that the remaining 1,200, up to 1,300, are continuing to exit rapidly," he said, citing information from Turkey's defense minister.

"Of course we are tracking them. They are all going to leave, and this process will not end before they leave," Erdogan added.

One of Putin's other difficult tasks is to broker an accommodation between Erdogan and Syrian President Bashar Assad, who have been adversaries throughout Syria's eight-year civil war. Russia has used its military power to help Assad beat back the Syrian rebellion and is trying to ensure that his government regains control over the entire country.

"The Russian military cannot give permission for the Turkish forces to either stay or leave the Syrian territory. Only the legitimate government of the Syrian Arab Republic can do that," Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters at a press briefing in Sochi.

Erdogan's desire for a "safe zone," stretching across much of northern Syria, complicates that plan. Assad, during a visit Tuesday to his troops in Syria's northern Idlib province, called Erdogan "a thief" who has stolen Syrian land.

Putin's role as Syria's central power broker was bolstered after the Trump administration announced it was withdrawing its remaining troops from the north. The announcement — shortly after Erdogan spoke with Trump earlier this month — cleared the way for the Turkish offensive against the SDF, the main U.S. military partner fighting the Islamic State militant group.

"Erdogan is well aware that the United States is an external factor for the region and for the conflict, while Russia is now an internal factor," Fyodor Lukyanov, a Russian international affairs analyst who has advised the Kremlin, told the Vedomosti newspaper. "Russia controls these processes, and a lot depends on Moscow. ...  What Turkey wants to achieve in Syria is impossible without agreements with Moscow. No serious military action can happen there that counteracts Moscow."

A large convoy of U.S. military vehicles left Syria on Monday and crossed the Iraqi border. The convoy was heckled in places by Kurds who accused the United States of betrayal and hurled rocks and vegetables at the vehicles.

On Tuesday, Iraq's military said the newly arrived U.S. forces would have to withdraw from the country. "There is no agreement for these forces to stay in Iraq," a military statement said.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the arriving troops would not remain in Iraq "interminably" and that the aim was to eventually get them home. The details would be worked out in discussions with Iraqi officials, he said during a visit Tuesday to an air base in Saudi Arabia.

Dadouch reported from Beirut. The Washington Post's Amie Ferris-Rotman in Moscow, Asser Khatab in Beirut and Mustafa Salim in Irbil, Iraq, contributed to this report.

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