MOSCOW (AFP) — Russian forces crossed the Euphrates River in Syria and headed for the border with Turkey on Wednesday, under a deal cut by President Vladimir Putin of Russia and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The Rossiya-24 television channel and TASS news agency quoted the defense ministry as saying the convoy of Russian military police had crossed the river at noon (0900 GMT) and “advanced toward the Syrian-Turkish border”.
The troop movement came after Putin and Erdogan on Tuesday signed a 10-point memorandum on Syria that the Russian leader called “very important if not crucial” and Erdogan hailed as “historic.”
It was released after the two leaders met for talks in Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi.
Russia and Turkey agreed to ensure Kurdish forces withdraw from areas close to Syria’s border with Turkey and to launch joint patrols.
Turkey has seized control of a “safe zone” inside Syria about 75 miles long and 20 miles deep and the agreement keeps this as the “status quo.”
The deal will have Turkey preserve the zone between the border towns of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain.
From noon (0900 GMT) on Wednesday, Russian military police and Syrian border guards were to “facilitate the removal” of Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters and their weapons from within 18 miles of the Turkish-Syrian border.
Ankara calls the YPG a “terrorist offshoot” of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been waging an insurgency inside Turkey since 1984.
This withdrawal must be completed within 150 hours.
The Russian and Turkish patrols will then start in two zones stretching 6 miles to the east and west of the area captured by Turkey’s offensive, called Operation Peace Spring.
This will allow Turkey to patrol with Russia in areas inside Syria that were not part of its offensive.
The agreement says all YPG militia “elements and their weapons” will be removed from the strategic cities of Manbij and Tal Rifaat in northern Syria.
“All YPG terrorists in Tal Rifaat and Manbij will be removed outside this region, together with their weaponry,” Erdogan said.
Tal Rifaat is a town in Aleppo province 12 miles south of the frontier. It has changed hands several times. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), dominated by the YPG, captured it from Syrian rebels in 2016, despite Turkey’s efforts to keep them back.
Turkey last year threatened to launch a cross-border offensive to capture Tal Rifaat, but Russia made assurances that the YPG militia was no longer there.
In March Turkey and Russia began holding patrols in Tal Rifaat.
Last week Syrian forces took control of the key town of Manbij, about 20 miles from the Turkish border after U.S. troops withdrew from their base there.
The SDF, aided by U.S. forces, took control of the city in 2016, ousting ISIS. Turkey was enraged, fearing a powerful Kurdish presence on its southern border.
The memorandum says Russia and Turkey will launch joint efforts to “facilitate the return of refugees in a safe and voluntary manner.” There are 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey.
The agreement says the countries back the process of peace talks launched by Turkey together with Russia and Iran to find a “lasting political solution” to the conflict.
The peace process is named after the Kazakh capital of Astana, where discussions have been held since 2017, although the city has since been renamed Nur-Sultan.
© Agence France-Presse