Syria: Kurds Report Clashes with Turkey Despite Ceasefire Withdrawal

Turkish soldiers and a Turkey-backed Syrian fighter walk during a raid in a village east of Ras al-Ain on the border between Syria and Turkey in northeastern Syria, on October 28, 2019. (Photo by Nazeer Al-khatib / AFP) (Photo by NAZEER AL-KHATIB/AFP via Getty Images)
NAZEER AL-KHATIB/AFP via Getty Images

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said on Monday that clashes with Turkish-backed Syrian militia groups continue despite the SDF withdrawing from the border region as demanded in the security agreement between Turkey and Syria’s patrons in Russia.

According to the Kurdish news service Rudaw, the fighting is centered around Ras al-Ayn, a town known to the Kurds as Sari Kani. 

Rudaw quoted claims from Kurdish officials that “a Turkish tank and multiple armored vehicles” have been destroyed in the fighting, which has included exchanges of artillery fire. This would suggest the Turks have provided their Syrian proxy fighters with equipment.

Turkey’s Syrian allies, largely drawn from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) group that was once touted as a “moderate” rebel faction by the Obama administration, are accused of repeatedly violating the cease-fire agreement:

SDF officials in the area have told Rudaw that Turkish-backed groups do not honor or respect international laws or agreements, a claim also made by relief organization the Free Burma Rangers.

“What’s happening is the Free Syrian Army is [conducting] a ground attack. There never was a ceasefire. Everyday they’ve been fighting, and the Turkish military [attack] with airstrikes and drones. Two days ago tanks and armored cars attacked people, chasing the civilians out,” David Eubank, head of Free Burma Rangers told Rudaw in Tel Tamr on Monday.

“We have been moving patients and casualties from the front line everyday. We ourselves were attacked and almost killed,” Eubank added.

The SDF said it has withdrawn from the Syria-Turkey border in accordance with the Turkey-Russia agreement, but accused the FSA of unilaterally deciding to add more areas to the “safe zone” and launching surprise attacks against SDF forces in those areas.

Some SDF members accused Turkey of supporting these attacks with artillery fire and expressed disappointment with the Syrian army for responding slowly to the cease-fire violations, even though Syrian soldiers and civilians have been injured in the attacks. Syrian military units are supposed to be moving into the safe zone and taking up positions formerly held by Kurdish militia.

The head of the SDF media office in northern Syria, Mustafa Bali, described Turkey’s proxy fighters as “jihadists” and said Turkey has “no intention to stop fighting despite the announced agreement.” He said the Turkish assaults included drones and other “heavy weapons.”

Bali also posted a video of Free Syrian Army fighters surrounding an injured female SDF fighter and shouting curses at her.

The ceasefire technically expires at 6:00 p.m. local time on Tuesday, at which time Russian and Turkish forces are scheduled to begin jointly patrolling the Syrian side of the Turkish border. Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said on Tuesday that Kurdish forces have not fully withdrawn from the safe area as agreed.

“It looks like the YPG terror organization is still in the area of Operation Peace Spring. This fight is not over. We are aware that it will not end,” said Akar. The YPG is the main Kurdish militia group in Syria. Operation Peace Spring is the name given to Turkey for its latest incursion into Syria.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, on the other hand, said on Tuesday that Kurdish withdrawal from the “safety corridor” has been “completed ahead of schedule,” as confirmed by both Syrian border guards and Russian military police.

Russia and Turkey are currently holding discussions to work out the logistics of joint border patrols. According to a spokesman for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the patrols will “establish whether or not the terrorists have actually withdrawn,” by which he meant YPG forces.

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