ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Kurdish YPG forces have still not fully withdrawn from a strip of land in northeast Syria from which Ankara says they must leave, Turkey’s defense minister was quoted on Tuesday as saying, hours before a deadline for their removal expires.
Under an accord reached a week ago between the presidents of Turkey and Russia, Syrian border guards and Russian military police are meant to remove all YPG forces and their weapons from a 30 km (19 mile) band of territory south of the Turkish-Syrian border by 6 pm local time (1500 GMT) on Tuesday.
After that deadline, Russian and Turkish forces will start jointly to patrol a narrower, 10 km strip of land on the Syrian side of the border.
The deal, clinched in the Russian Black Sea town of Sochi, reinforced an existing U.S.-brokered ceasefire that had halted Turkey’s offensive, dubbed Operation Peace Spring, in northeast Syria targeting the YPG, which Ankara views as a terrorist organization linked to Kurdish insurgents in southeast Turkey.
“It looks like the YPG terror organization is still in the area of Operation Peace Spring,” Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar told the Sabah newspaper in an interview.
“This fight (against terrorism) is not over. We are aware that it will not end.”
Asked about the joint patrols planned with Russian forces in the border area, Akar said: “The rules of engagement, (the question of) which vehicles are to be used, the authorities and directives are to be determined.”
A Russian delegation is currently in Turkey for talks on the border patrols and wider security situation in northeast Syria.
Akar 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 located 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.
President Tayyip Erdogan has said Turkey will act alone to clear northeast Syria of YPG forces if Russia fails to fulfil its obligations under the Sochi accord.
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 criticized 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, a close ally of President Bashar al-Assad, has emerged as the key foreign power in Syria, its influence further bolstered by the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the northeast.