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Russia Joins Turkey in Expelling Kurds from Northern Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shake hands during their meeting on the sidelines of the MAKS-2019 air show in Zhukovsky, Russia, August 27, 2019. (Maxim Shipenkov/Pool via Reuters)

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian president Vladimir Putin agreed to a deal Tuesday to oversee the removal of Syrian Kurdish YPG forces from a safe zone more than three times the size of the zone agreed on between the United States and Turkey last week.

Under the agreement, Turkish and Russian forces will remove Kurdish forces and weapons up to 30 kilometers from the Turkish border starting Wednesday, before patrolling a narrower ten kilometer strip of “safe zone” along the border in six days.

The territory allotted to the Turks under the deal extends past the prior U.S.-Turkey agreement, which only included the central part of the border between the Syrian towns of Tel Abyad and Ras al Ain, where Turkish forces had focused their military offensive. Under the deal struck between Erdogan and Putin, Turkey will retain most of the area it initially said it would capture as part of “Operation Peace Spring.”

Hours after the announcement, the Turkish defense ministry reported that the United States had told Turkey that the withdrawal of Kurdish fighters from the “safe zone” was complete. Vice President Mike Pence received a letter on Tuesday from Syrian Democratic Forces commander Mazloum Kobani, who stated the Kurds had withdrawn “from the relevant area of operations.”

After six hours of talks with Erdogan in Sochi, Russia, Putin described the deal as “very important, if not momentous, to resolve what is a pretty tense situation which has developed on the Syrian-Turkish border.” The deal mirrors a 1998 agreement between Turkey and the Syrian government.

The move evidences Russia’s influence in the region following the U.S. withdrawal. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper arrived in Baghdad Wednesday for talks with the Iraqi government over the retreat of U.S. forces into western Iraq. On Sunday, Esper stated the move was “to help defend Iraq” and “to perform a counter-ISIS mission as we sort through the next steps,” although Iraq said Tuesday that “There is no agreement for these forces to stay in Iraq.”

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