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SDF withdraws from northern Syria border zone ahead of schedule, Russia says

Russia’s defense minister said on Tuesday, October 29 that Kurdish forces in northern Syria had withdrawn from areas along Turkey’s border ahead of a schedule agreed between Russia and Turkey.

“The withdrawal of armed units from territory where a security corridor should be created has been completed ahead of time,” Russian news agencies quoted Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu as saying on a visit to Armenia.

“Both Syrian border guards and our military police went there,” Shoygu said.

A deadline for the withdrawal had been due to expire at 6:00 pm local time (1500 GMT) on Tuesday.

“More than 100 square kilometres were cleared, a large number of different explosive ordnances were deactivated – from mines and shells to multiple launch rocket system ammunition,” Shoygu added.

But Turkey later said it would see for itself whether the fighters had withdrawn.

“We will establish, through joint patrols, whether or not the terrorists have actually withdrawn,” Fahrettin Altun, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Communications Director tweeted.

“Of course we have to believe our Russian partners,” Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu later told reporters in Geneva while seated next to his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, ahead of a U.N.-backed meeting tasked with amending Syria’s constitution.

“We halted operation, in that area, in northeastern part of Syria. If we see any YPG/PKK terrorists we will not hesitate to take action to eliminate them,” Cavusoglu said.

After marathon talks between Erdogan and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in Sochi on October 22, Russia and Turkey signed a deal that will see Russian military police and Syrian border guards “facilitate the removal” of Syrian Democratic Forces from border areas. That deal followed an earlier U.S.-Turkey agreement under which Turkey was to temporarily halt its assault on northeast Syria in order to give the SDF time to withdraw from part of the border.

Under the Memorandum of Understanding between Turkey and Russia, “YPG” fighters must leave a 30-km area along the entire length of the Syria-Turkey border, and when Tuesday’s deadline expired, joint Russian-Turkish patrols to a depth of 10 km were due to begin.

Turkey’s defence ministry said preparations for the joint patrols had begun, with mine clearing and reconnaissance flights on patrol routes.

Turkey’s Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said on Tuesday the joint patrols would begin “soon,” according to the private NTV broadcaster.

Russian military police conducted the first patrols in border areas on October 23, and 300 more Russian military police arrived in Syria on Friday. On Tuesday, at least four people were injured in an explosion near the border crossing point at al-Darbasiyah. Local reports said a mortar shell had caused the explosion, but Tass reported the Russian Center for Reconciliation of Opposing Sides as saying that an “unidentified caseless explosive device went off near Russian armored vehicles … during preparations for a planned meeting of Russian military police representatives with the Turkish side,” adding that there were “no casualties among the Russian personnel.”

NATO-member Turkey launched its Operation Peace Spring incursion into Syria on October 9 after U.S. President Donald Trump said he would withdraw the majority of U.S. troops from northeast Syria. Turkey’s armed forces and Syrian opposition groups operating under the banner of the Syrian National Army aimed to push the SDF and its predominantly-Kurdish YPG component south in order to occupy a 30-km-deep buffer zone along the border.

Backed by the U.S.-led Coalition, the SDF fought the ground war against ISIS in north and east Syria. Turkey considers the YPG to be a terrorist organization inextricably linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey.

On Sunday, SDF General Command said that after “extensive discussions with the Russian Federation on our previous objection to some terms of the memorandum, we agreed to the implementation of the deal.”

“The SDF is redeploying to new positions away from the Turkish-Syrian border across northeast Syria in accordance with the terms of the agreement in order to stop the bloodshed and to protect the inhabitants of the region from Turkish attacks. Our forces in the border zone are being replaced by border guards of the central government,” the SDF said.

Last week, the SDF said on the day of the signing of the Turkey-Russia deal that its forces had withdrawn from the area agreed between Turkey and the United States.

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With reporting from AFP. This post was updated on October 29.

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