Syria Kurds accuse Turkey of scuppering US-brokered deal

People carry a banner reading ‘Kurdistan it’s bleeding, Europe is just watching’ during a pro-Kurdish demonstration against Turkey’s military action in northeastern Syria in Frankfurt, Germany, October 19, 2019. — Reuters pic
People carry a banner reading ‘Kurdistan it’s bleeding, Europe is just watching’ during a pro-Kurdish demonstration against Turkey’s military action in northeastern Syria in Frankfurt, Germany, October 19, 2019. — Reuters pic

BEIRUT, Lebanon, Oct 19 — The commander of Kurdish forces in Syria accused Turkey of sabotaging a US-brokered truce Saturday by blocking the withdrawal of his forces from a flashpoint border town in north-eastern Syria.

In a wide-ranging interview with AFP, Mazloum Abdi, head of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), said he still wished to see a role for the US in Syria to counterbalance Russian influence, while recommitting his forces to countering the Islamic State group. 

“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.

Under a US-brokered ceasefire announced Thursday evening, the massively outgunned SDF forces are meant to withdraw from a key strategic area near the Syrian-Turkish border within five days.

But Abdi said he could not abandon his forces in Ras al-Ain, which is besieged by Turkish troops and their Syrian allies.

He said the US was not doing enough to force Turkey to abide by the agreement, which was brokered by US Vice President Mike Pence after talks in Ankara.

“If there is no commitment, we shall consider what happened a game between the Americans and Turkey — on one side preventing the troop withdrawal while on the other claiming our forces did not withdraw,”  Abdi said.

“We will consider it a conspiracy against our forces,” he added.

He said SDF forces were committed to withdrawing “until a new security mechanism is in place to protect civilians”.

‘Role of America’

Abdi denied Turkish claims of an agreement leading to their withdrawal from a wider 440-kilometre border.

The deal concerned only a 120-kilometre area from Tal Abyad to Ras al-Ain in northern Syria and as far south as the M4 highway -- a key east-west artery that links the Kurdish heartland in the northeast with Syria's second city Aleppo and the Mediterranean coast beyond.

The US had been closely allied with SDF forces in northern Syria until President Donald Trump announced last week he would withdraw American troops ahead of a Turkish offensive.

Critics have accused him of abandoning the Kurds, with whom the US fought a bloody campaign to destroy the Islamic State in the country. 

US troops have pulled back from multiple locations near the site of the Turkish offensive, but there is still an American presence in the country.

Around 11,000 Kurdish troops died in the battles against IS, while thousands of IS fighters and their families are in Kurdish-run prisoners.

Abdi said he was disappointed by the withdrawal, but still wanted the US to have an influence in Syria. 

“We want there to be a role for America in Syria, not only Russia and others monopolising the scene,” he said. 

“It is in our interest that the American forces remain to maintain balance in Syria.”

He said Trump had given contradictory messages, telling him one thing on the phone before sending out tweets criticising the Kurds.

‘Anti-IS Ops Restarted’

During Syria's eight year civil war the Kurds had carved out a semi-autonomous region in the country's northeast.

Following the US announcement and faced with the prospect of an imminent Turkish onslaught, they brokered a deal with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that saw regime forces deployed in large numbers in the predominantly Kurdish regions for the first time in years.

Abdi admitted he had been hoping for a wider political agreement regarding autonomy but said the deal with Damascus was a “concession” he had to make. 

He insisted that the deal with Damascus is only military in nature to confront the Turkish offensive.

“The cause is America's weak position and the withdrawal of the American forces,” he said.

Russia has been fighting alongside Assad's regime in Syria since 2015 and it was swift to deploy alongside Syrian government forces to fill the vacuum left by retreating US forces.

The SDF announced Thursday it had suspended actions against the jihadist IS group to prioritise defensive actions, but Abdi said they were still committed to fighting the extremists.

“We have restarted military action against IS cells in Deir Ezzor (in northern Syria). Our forces are working there with the coalition forces,” he said. — AFP

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