Ras al-Ain (Syria) (AFP) – The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces fully withdrew from a Turkish-encircled town in northern Syria Sunday, in what appeared to be the start of a wider pullout under a ceasefire deal.
Ankara launched a cross-border attack against Syria’s Kurds on October 9 after the United States announced a military pullout from the north of the war-torn country.
A US-brokered ceasefire was announced late Thursday, giving Kurdish forces until Tuesday evening to withdraw from a buffer area Ankara wants to create inside Syrian territory along its southern frontier.
The deal requires the SDF — the de facto army of Kurdish authorities in northeastern Syria — to pull out of a border zone 32 kilometres (20 miles) deep into Syrian territory, the length of which is not clear.
The Kurds have agreed to withdrawing from a stretch of 120 kilometres (70 miles) from Tal Abyad to Ras al-Ain.
But Turkey ultimately wants a much longer “safe zone” to stretch 440 kilometres along the frontier.
On Saturday, SDF commander Mazloum Abdi said Kurdish forces would withdraw from the 120-kilometre zone as soon as they were allowed out of Ras al-Ain, which was besieged by Turkish troops and its Syrian proxies.
The SDF later said its fighters had evacuated the border town as part of the truce agreement.
“We don’t have any more fighters” in Ras al-Ain, SDF spokesman Kino Gabriel said on Twitter.
Turkey’s defence ministry confirmed earlier that Kurdish fighters were leaving Ras al-Ain.
An AFP reporter on the ground saw at least 50 vehicles, including ambulances, leaving the town hospital, from which flames erupted shortly after their departure.
Dozens of fighters in military attire left on pickups, passing by checkpoints manned by Ankara-allied Syrian fighters, he said.
In the town of Tal Tamr, a woman ululated as a crowd gathered to receive the convoy from Ras al-Ain, another correspondent said.
– US troops withdraw –
The departure from Ras al-Ain came a day after a medical convoy managed to evacuate wounded from the hospital.
The Kurds have been a key ally to Washington in the US-backed fight against the Islamic State group in Syria, but Turkey views them as “terrorists” linked to Kurdish militants on its own soil.
Earlier this month, US President Donald Trump said US special forces would be withdrawn from northern Syria, in what was widely seen as betrayal of the Kurds and a green light for a Turkish attack.
A week ago, the Pentagon said Trump had ordered up to 1,000 troops out of northern Syria.
Earlier Sunday, US forces withdrew from their largest base in northern Syria, the Observatory said.
The correspondent in Tal Tamr saw more than 70 US armoured vehicles escorted by helicopters drive past the town carrying military equipment.
Some flew the American stars-and-stripes flag as they made their way eastwards along a highway crossing the town, he said.
The Observatory said the convoy was evacuating the Sarrin military base on the edge of the planned buffer zone, south of the border town of Kobane.
The vehicles appeared to be heading to the town of Hassakeh, further east, it said.
– Turkey ‘monitoring’ –
Sunday’s pullout was the fourth such withdrawal of American forces in a week and left Syria’s northern provinces of Aleppo and Raqa devoid of US troops, Abdel Rahman said.
Since October 9, Turkish-led bombardment and fire has killed 114 civilians and displaced at least 300,000 people from their homes, the Observatory says, in the latest humanitarian crisis in Syria’s eight-year civil war.
More than 250 SDF fighters and 190 pro-Ankara fighters have lost their lives in that same period, it says.
On Sunday, the Observatory said pro-Ankara fighters executed three civilians who were hiding in an industrial part of Ras al-Ain.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country has lost five soldiers.
On Twitter, Trump cited Defence Secretary Mark Esper on Sunday as saying the ceasefire was “holding up very nicely”.
“There are some minor skirmishes that have ended quickly. New areas being resettled with the Kurds,” he said.
On Saturday, Abdi said his forces had resumed working with the US-led coalition against IS in the east of the country, and insisted Washington’s presence in the country was important.
International observers have warned that the incursion could force Kurdish fighters to redeploy from jails and camps where they are guarding thousands of suspected IS fighters and family members.
That has raised fears of a resurgence by the extremists, whom the SDF expelled from their last scrap of territory in March but who continue to claim deadly attacks in Kurdish-held areas.