The ceasefire in northeast Syria got off to a rocky start on Friday, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned he would resume a full-scale operation against Kurdish forces if they do not withdraw from a border “safe zone”.
Speaking to reporters in Istanbul, Erdogan said the Kurdish forces must withdraw “without exception” from a swathe of land 30km deep inside Syria, running 440km along Turkey’s eastern border with Syria.
“If the promises are kept until Tuesday evening, the safe zone issue will be resolved,” Erdogan said.
“If it fails, the operation… will start the minute 120 hours are over.”
Ankara considers the Kurdish forces to be “terrorists” linked to Kurdish rebels inside Turkey and wants the fighters pushed back from its border. It says the “safe zone” it wants to create inside Syria would also make room to settle up to two million Syrian war refugees – out of 3.6 million it is currently hosting.
Donald Trump, president of the United States, meanwhile said Erdogan told him there had been “minor sniper and mortar fire” in the region “that was quickly eliminated”.
The Turkish leader assured him in a call that “he very much wants the ceasefire, or pause, to work”, Trump said on Twitter, adding that the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) also want the deal to work.
There was no sign of any pullout by the Kurdish-led forces, however.
In a statement, the SDF said the deal only covers a 12km stretch – a much smaller section of the border than that Erdogan annouced – and did not commit to pull out from anywhere.
Columns of smoke were seen over the border town on Friday morning, and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Rojava Information Center said fighting continued into the afternoon as Turkish-backed Syrian fighters clashed with Kurdish forces in villages on the town’s outskirts.
Fighting quieted around 4pm local time, and the calm continued into nightfall, Kurdish fighters said.
Earlier in the day, Mustefa Bali, a spokesman for the SDF, accused Turkey of violating the ceasefire deal reached during a visit to Ankara by US Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday.
“Despite the agreement to halt the fighting, air and artillery attacks continue to target the positions of fighters, civilian settlements and the hospital” in the border town of Ras al-Ain in northeast Syria, he said.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs described the situation in northeast Syria as “reportedly calm in most areas, with the exception of Ras al-Ain, where shelling and gunfire continued to be reported” earlier on Friday.
The ceasefire, brokered by Washington, was aimed at easing a crisis that saw Trump order a hasty and unexpected US retreat, which his critics say amounted to abandoning Kurdish fighters who fought alongside US troops to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS).
Turkey’s offensive, launched on October 9, created a new humanitarian crisis in Syria with 200,000 civilians taking flight, according to Red Cross estimates.
It also prompted a security alert over thousands of ISIL fighters held in Kurdish jails.
Mark Esper, US Defense Secretary, said on Friday that “no US ground forces will participate in the enforcement of the safe zone.
“However we will remain in communication with both Turkey and the SDF,” he said, adding that the US was continuing its “deliberate withdrawal from northeastern Syria”, he told reporters.
After the US decision to pull its 1,000 strong contingent from Syria, the Kurds agreed with Russia to allow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces to deploy along the border with Turkey to halt Ankara’s offensive.
Syrian forces have already moved into several sites previously under Kurdish control.
Erdogan is to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia, on Tuesday, the day the halt in fighting runs out. Moscow along with Iran are al-Assad’s main military allies.
Criticism meanwhile mounted for the US brokered deal.
Donald Tusk, president of the EU council, said it was “not a cease-fire, it is a demand for the capitulation of the Kurds” and called on Turkey to immediately halt its operation in northeast Syria.
French President Emmanuel Macron called the Turkish operation “madness.”
In Washington, US senators who have criticised the Trump administration for failing to prevent the Turkish assault in the first place said they would press ahead with legislation to impose sanctions against Turkey, a NATO ally.