Turkey, Kurds trade accusations over shaky Syria truce
Erdogan says Ankara to resume offensive if truce deal falters
RAS AL-AIN, Syria (AFP) — Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan fired off a fresh warning Saturday to “crush” Kurdish forces as both sides traded accusations of violating a U.S.-brokered truce deal in northeastern Syria.
The deal announced late Thursday is intended to halt a Turkish-led offensive against Kurdish forces launched on Oct. 9, on condition they pull out of a “safe zone” on the Syrian side of the border.
The offensive has killed dozens of civilians, mainly on the Kurdish side, and prompted hundreds of thousands to flee their homes in the latest humanitarian crisis of Syria’s eightyear civil war.
Erdogan warned that, if the pullout does not happen, “we will start where we left off and continue to crush the terrorists’ heads.”
Turkish presidency spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said Ankara had urged Washington to use its influence to ensure an orderly Kurdish pullout.
“We have told our American colleagues to use their leverage, their connections to make sure that they leave without any incidents,” he told AFP.
The top figure on the Kurdish side, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) commander Mazloum Abdi, told AFP that Turkey was blocking his forces’ withdrawal and trying to blame the deal’s collapse on the Kurds.
“The Turks are preventing the withdrawal from the Ras al-Ain area, preventing the exit of our forces, the wounded and civilians,” Abdi said in a phone interview from Syria.
Almost at the same moment, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported artillery shelling on Ras al-Ain and surrounding villages by Turkey’s Syrian proxies, the latest bombardment of the area since the truce.
Turkish troops and its Syrian rebel proxies seized part of the town of Ras al-Ain on Thursday, hitting a hospital.
On Saturday evening, an AFP reporter saw people waiting outside a hospital in the town of Qamishli further east as ambulance sirens rang out.
A Kurdish Red Crescent official said rescuers had managed to evacuate some of the wounded from the Ras al-Ain hospital.
“In town we were told there were many wounded and people under the rubble” but they could not be reached, he said.
The massively outgunned Kurds have agreed to the deal, whereby they should pull out of an Arab-majority area that includes Ras al-Ain and stretches about 120 kilometers (75 miles) along the border.
Turkey wants to push Kurdish forces away from its southern border by establishing a 30-kilometer deep “safe zone” on the Syrian side of the frontier.
The Turkish defense ministry earlier blamed the SDF for not upholding the ceasefire, accusing Kurdish fighters of carrying out 14 attacks in 36 hours.
US troops leaving Syria to go to western Iraq
ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT (AP) — Defense Secretary Mark Esper said that under the current plan all U.S. troops leaving Syria will go to western Iraq and the military will continue to conduct operations against the Islamic State group to prevent its resurgence.
Speaking to reporters traveling with him to the Middle East, Esper did not rule out the idea that U.S. forces would conduct counterterrorism missions from Iraq into Syria. But he said those details will be worked out over time.
His comments were the first to specifically lay out where American troops will go as they leave Syria and what the counter-IS fight could look like. Esper said he has spoken to his Iraqi counterpart about the plan to shift the more than 700 troops leaving Syria into western Iraq.
The developments made clear that one of President Donald Trump’s rationales for withdrawing troops from Syria was not going to come to pass any time soon.