Turkey’s foreign minister has warned his country will resume its military operation in northeast Syria if Kurdish fighters do not withdraw from the region before the US-brokered ceasefire ends on Tuesday evening.
“We have 35 hours left. If they don’t withdraw, our operation will resume,” Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Monday in Istanbul. “This is also what we agreed with the Americans.”
He added that Kurdish fighters were complying with the US-backed deal and withdrawing from areas that Turkey controls following its wide-ranging incursion, launched on October 9.
Cavusoglu also accused Syrian Kurdish groups of 30 live fire violations during the four-day-old truce which killed one Turkish soldier. He said Turkey retaliated against these attacks.
Turkey has demanded that Kurdish forces withdraw from a border strip in northern Syria 30 kilometres (19 miles) deep, where it intends to resettle refugees.
Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) spokesman Kino Gabriel said in a statement on Sunday that the Kurdish-led group had no fighters left in Ras al-Ain following Sunday’s evacuation.
But Turkish-backed Syrian rebels, who took control of most of Ras al-Ain last week, disputed that claim, saying the Kurdish forces were still entrenched in nearly thirty percent of the area.
Ras al Ain is one of two towns on the Turkey-Syria border that have been the main targets of Turkey’s offensive to push back Kurdish fighters and create a “safe zone” inside Syria.
A witness in the regiontold Reuters news agency that Turkish forces had already begun establishing two such posts on Sunday, drawing criticism from Iran on Monday.
“We are against Ankara’s establishing of military posts in Syria,” Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi told a weekly news conference broadcast live on state TV.
“The issues should be resolved by diplomatic means … Syria’s integrity should be respected,” said Mousavi, whose country is a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Ankara is seeking to set up the “safe zone” as a buffer as it regards the YPG, the main component of the SDF, a terrorist group because of its links to Kurdish fighters in southeast Turkey.
The YPG has been a close US ally in the fight against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, ISIS).
US President Donald Trump’s administration negotiated the five-day ceasefire with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after heavy criticism that Washington had abandoned the SDF and opened the way for Ankara’s offensive by removing its soldiers from northeast Syria.
Trump’s sudden troop withdrawal and the Turkish attack on the SDF have alarmed Western countries, which fear it could allow thousands of ISIL group fighters detained by the Kurdish-led force to escape and regroup.
Turkey has rejected the concerns, saying its offensive will not hinder the fight against ISIL or jeopardise the gains of the international community against the fighters.
Meanwhile, US troops withdrawn from northern Syria have crossed into the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq, an Iraqi Kurdish security source told Reuters on Monday.
Reuters video images showed armoured vehicles carrying US troops through the Sahela border crossing into Iraq’s northern province of Dohuk.
US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Saturday that all of the nearly 1,000 troops withdrawing from northern Syria are expected to move to western Iraq to continue the campaign against ISIL and “to help defend Iraq”.
The US pullout also created a vacuum that Russia, Assad’s most powerful backer, has looked to fill.
Last week, Syrian and Russian forces, invited by Kurdish authorities, entered the two border cities of Manbij and Kobani vacated by US troops.
Erdogan has backed rebels fighting to oust Assad in the eight-year Syrian conflict, but has said Turkey had no problem with Syrian government forces deploying near the border if the YPG group was removed.
At a planned meeting on Tuesday in the Russian city of Sochi, Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin will discuss the issue of YPG withdrawal from Manbij and Kobani, Turkish FM Cavusoglu said on Sunday.
While Erdogan and Putin have close ties on defence and energy, Moscow has called the Turkish offensive into Syria “unacceptable” and said it should be limited.