The presidents of Turkey and Russia outlined a plan late Tuesday to divvy up territory and control of large parts of Syria after the U.S. withdrawal from the region and the Turkish military’s offensive to drive out Kurdish fighters.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, announced their plan in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi as a five-day cease-fire arranged by the U.S. and Turkey between Turkish and Kurdish forces in Syria’s border zone expired. The cease-fire was meant to allow for the withdrawal of Kurdish fighters from the area, a pullout demanded by Erdogan.
Mazloum Kobani, commander of the mostly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, informed U.S. officials that his troops had completed the withdrawal a couple of hours before the end of the cease-fire.
James Jeffrey, the administration’s special representative for Syria, testifying before a U.S. Senate panel in Washington, said that if the situation holds, the cease-fire “is to go to a halt.”
Putin and Erdogan, after about seven hours of talks in Sochi, portrayed their agreement as a wider cease-fire and said it would involve Russian and Syrian government forces patrolling outside the so-called safe zone long demanded by the Turkish president.
The deal augments Russia’s already extensive presence in Syria and further diminishes the U.S. role. Turkey, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s easternmost bulwark, cut the deal with Russia after President Trump announced the U.S. pullout, leaving the formerly American-backed Syrian Kurdish forces in a precarious position against their Turkish adversaries.
“We want peace and stability in Syria,” said Erdogan, who called himself a “friend of Syria.”
The deal gives the Kurdish forces 150 hours, slightly more than six days, starting at noon Wednesday, to withdraw to positions 19 miles south of the border with Turkey. Russian military police and Syrian border guards will oversee the removal of Kurdish troops and their weapons. After 150 hours, joint Russian-Turkish patrols will begin in the zone.
Under terms of the agreement, Turkey apparently gets to keep the expansive territory between the Syrian border towns of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn, both of which are now under Turkish control.
The zone — to which Erdogan wants to relocate some 2 million Syrian refugees residing in Turkey — will extend 20 miles deep into Syria along an east-west stretch of the border. Much of the Kurdish population of the area fled under Turkish attack this month.
This territorial concession, demanded by Erdogan, amounts to a significant carve-up of Syrian territory — and a forced demographic overhaul of the area, since the refugees to be resettled there are mostly Syrian Arabs, not Kurds.
Kurdish forces are also to withdraw from the towns of Manbij and Tal Rifaat, which are situated farther west, near the city of Aleppo. Some, if not all, Kurdish forces may have already pulled out of the two towns, replaced by Syrian government troops and Russian forces.
Trump’s decision to pull back a small number of U.S. troops emboldened Erdogan to launch a fierce assault Oct. 9, ignoring Trump’s request that he not make such a move. Turkey and proxy forces attacked across a broad section of its southern border with Syria, sending more than 200,000 civilians fleeing for safety elsewhere in Syria and in northern Iraq, authorities say. Reports late Tuesday indicated that a new wave of Syrian civilians was on the move away from the Syrian-Turkish border as the cease-fire was set to expire.
Turkey says it intends to control a zone stretching 20 miles deep inside Syrian territory. The strip, Ankara says, would serve both as barrier against potential Kurdish attacks and as a potential area to resettle millions of Syrian refugees living in Turkey.
Erdogan has long denounced Syrian Kurdish militias — key U.S. allies in the fight against Islamic State extremists — as “terrorists,” because of their ties to Kurdish insurgents in southeastern Turkey.
The Syrian Kurds, in turn, accuse Turkey of using “terrorist” proxy forces — including militants who formerly fought as anti-government Syrian rebels — in its incursion into northern Syria.
“All will have to get out,” Erdogan said before the Sochi meeting. “The process will not end before they are out.”
A senior U.S. administration official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, in keeping with administration rules, said the Turks, if they find Kurdish fighters in the buffer zone, “will inform us, or shoot them.”
Brett McGurk, the administration’s representative for Syria until he quit Dec. 31 in protest over Trump’s first announced intention to pull forces out of the country, said the latest developments strengthen Russia’s position in the region and its ties with Syria’s autocratic president, Bashar Assad.
“Difference: key player now Moscow not Washington,” he wrote on Twitter. “Putin stood up to Erdogan more than Trump [did]. Bottom line: Fate of historic Kurd areas (Kobani) now entirely in hands of Assad/Russia.”
The Trump administration has offered to remove economic sanctions on Ankara if the fighting stops — another of Erdogan’s key demands — although a time frame has not been outlined.
In recent days, convoys of U.S. troops have been pulling out of northern Syria and heading out on major roads into neighboring Iraq. The pullout has drawn wide condemnation in the multinational Kurdish region — video of residents of the mostly Kurdish Syrian city of Qamishli pelting departing U.S. vehicles was aired widely in the Kurdish regions of Syria and Iraq.
Trump’s decision has prompted the Kurdish-led forces — seeking allies against Turkey — to begin a limited reconciliation with Assad’s government in Damascus. With the cooperation of the Syrian Kurdish leadership, Assad’s troops and allied Russian forces have moved into some areas long controlled by the Kurdish-led regional coalition in Syria’s northeast.
The Syrian Kurdish command views the presence of Assad’s military forces as preferable to a broad incursion by Turkish troops and proxy militias.
The dispute about Kurdish forces represents the latest turn in the Syrian war, which began in 2011 with anti-government street protests. The conflict soon morphed into a bloody geopolitical proxy battle pitting the United States and its allies, which armed anti-government rebels, against Assad’s principal allies, Russia and Iran.
Damascus withdrew much of its forces from northeastern Syria in 2012, as the government sought to stave off attacks from rebels across several fronts. Kurdish-led forces stepped into the security vacuum in the northeast and later received direct U.S. aid — including air power— in fighting off militant forces in the region.
Russia intervened directly on Assad’s behalf in 2015 at a point when the government in Damascus was in danger of toppling. Russian air power helped turn the tide of the battle in Syria.
With Moscow’s aid — along with assistance from Iran and its proxies, especially the Lebanese militia group Hezbollah — Syrian government forces regrouped and pushed back against rebel forces. Much of Syria and its major population centers are now firmly in government control.
Assad has made it clear that he intends to bring the northeastern zone long under Kurdish control back into the orbit of the central government in Damascus.
McDonnell reported from Irbil and Wilkinson from Washington. Times staff writer Sarah D. Wire in Washington contributed to this report.