Turkey has expressed doubts over Russian claims that the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia had withdrawn from a planned “safe zone” in northern Syria despite a last week’s deal between Turkish and Russian presidents in the Russian Black Sea city of Sochi.
On October 22, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin agreed to the YPG withdrawal from the zone within 150 hours, in order to bring an end to Turkey’s incursion into northeastern Syria that was launched on October 9.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Tuesday that the armed YPG forces had pulled out from the zone before the scheduled deadline which expired at 15:00 GMT, 6 pm local time.
However, Shoigu’s Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar told the Daily Sabah newspaper that the “YPG terror organization” was still in the area.
“This fight [against terrorism] is not over. We are aware that it will not end,” the Turkish defense minister said.
Akar claimed that there were still about 2,000 YPG fighters in the border towns of Manbij and Tal Rifat, nearly 1,000 in each, which are located to the west of the strip of the territory where Ankara wants to form the zone.
Erdogan vowed that Turkey would act alone to clear the area of the YPG if Russia fails to fulfill its obligations under the Sochi agreement.
The last Turkish comment on the YPG withdrawal came from Fahrettin Altun, Erdogan’s communications director.
“Turkey and Russia had set a 150-hour deadline for YPG terrorists to leave the safe zone. The time is up. We will establish [see], through joint patrols, whether or not the terrorists have actually withdrawn,” Altun tweeted.
The Sochi accord also foresees joint patrols by Turkish and Russian forces in a narrower, 10km, strip of land on the Syrian side of the border, in addition to the YPG withdrawal from a 30km band of territory by Syrian border guards and Russian military police.
Talks on the border patrols and further security issues have been reportedly going on with a Russian delegation in Turkey.
Turkey has long aimed to clear the area of the YPG, which it deems to be a “terrorist offshoot” of the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) that has waged a separatist armed insurgency within the country since 1984.
With its latest offensive, Turkey also aims to resettle up to two million Syrian refugees living in Turkey in the proposed zone.
Last week, Amnesty International, an international rights organization, said in a report that Turkey had illegally forced some Syrian refugees to return to the zone area months before its latest military operation in northeastern Syria.
Amnesty has allegedly verified 20 illegal push-back cases between July and October by conducting interviews with dozens of refugees who said Turkish police beat and threatened them into signing documents saying they were willingly returning to Syria.