Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Tuesday up to 1,300 Syrian Kurdish fighters have yet to vacate a northeastern Syrian area invaded by Ankara, hours before a five-day cease-fire between Turkish troops and Syrian Kurdish fighters was set to expire there.
Erdogan said up to 800 Syrian Kurdish fighters have already left under the deal that brought the pause in fighting following Turkey’s incursion and renewed threats to resume the offensive if all the Syrian Kurds don’t depart before the deadline runs out at 10:00 p.m.
The Turkish leader spoke to reporters before traveling to Russia for a high-stakes meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The pullout occurred under the terms of a U.S.-brokered deal for a 120-hour pause in fighting that expires Tuesday night, to allow Syrian Kurdish fighters to leave areas Turkey controls following its incursion into northeast Syrian to drive the fighters away from its borders.
Turkey launched the operation into northern Syria on Oct. 9, saying it aimed to push out Syrian Kurdish fighters it considers terrorists and an extension of a Kurdish insurgency within Turkey.
The move came days after President Donald Trump suddenly announced he was pulling American forces out of the area, essentially abandoning Kurdish allies in the battle against the Islamic State group and paving the way for the incursion Turkey had long promised to carry out.
Turkey seeks to establish what it calls a “safe zone” extending more than 400 kilometers (250 miles) along the Turkish-Syrian border and about 30 kilometers (19 miles) inside Syria, where it plans to resettle about 2 million of the roughly 3.6 million Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey.
“If America does not keep to its promises, our offensive will continue from where it left off, with a much greater determination,” Erdogan said. “There is no place for the (Kurdish fighters) in Syria’s future. We hope that with Russia’s cooperation, we will rid the region of separatist terror.”
Erdogan and Putin are meeting in Sochi for talks expected to focus on border areas that are currently held by Syrian government forces.
Although Turkish officials say the cease-fire agreement specifically covers a roughly 120-kilometer (75-mile) stretch between the Syrian border towns of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn, Erdogan has made clear he wants Turkish military presence along the full stretch of the border from the Euphrates River to Syria’s border with Iraq.
Turkey’s military said Tuesday at least 136 vehicles, carrying fighters, had left the region. It said it had recorded a total of 41 violations since the cease-fire came into effect. Kurdish officials have also accused Turkey of cease-fire violations.
Turkey’s incursion into Syria has led to an international outcry, which has in turn enraged Erdogan, who has accused his NATO allies of not standing by Turkey.
European Council President Donald Tusk on Tuesday condemned the incursion and called on Erdogan to pull his troops out of the region.
Tusk told EU lawmakers in Strasbourg, France that “no one is fooled by the so-called cease-fire” agreement, and that Turkey, which is a candidate for EU membership, “needs to end its military action permanently, withdraw its forces and respect international humanitarian law.”
He said that “any other course means unacceptable suffering, a victory for Daesh (the Islamic State group), and a serious threat to European security.”
Separately, Germany’s defense minister proposed the establishment of an internationally controlled security zone in Syria.
Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said that “the creation of an internationally controlled security zone with the inclusion of Turkey and Russia” would have the goal of deescalating the situation in northern Syria.
The German parliament would need to decide on whether German troops could participate in such a zone, Kramp-Karrenbauer said. She also told broadcaster Deutsche Welle that Chancellor Angela Merkel had been informed of the proposal.
Syrian state media reported Tuesday that government forces entered new areas in the northeastern province of Hassakeh as part of an agreement they reached with the main Syrian Kurdish group in the area after Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from northern Syria, essentially abandoning their Kurdish allies in the fight against IS.
The areas that the Syrian government and the Kurds agreed that the government would enter are outside the cease-fire agreement reached between the U.S. and Turkey.
Syrian President Bashar Assad visited territory captured from Turkey-backed Syrian fighters in the northwestern province of Idlib on Tuesday, where he described Erdogan as a “thief.”
State media showed images of Assad standing among Syrian soldiers in what the report said was strategic southern Idlib territory. The media quoted Assad as calling Erdogan a “thief who robbed factories, wheat and fuel and is today stealing territory” — apparently referring to Turkey’s invasion this month into northeastern Syria to push out Syrian Kurdish fighters.
Turkey has also carried out other incursions into Syria and controls territory east of Idlib. It also has observation points inside Idlib, negotiated with Russia, to monitor a cease-fire there between the government and opposition fighters and jihadi groups.
Meanwhile, U.S. troops pulling out of Syria were heading to neighboring Iraq, but Iraq’s military said Tuesday the troops did not have permission to stay in the country.
The Iraqi military in a statement said the American troops currently withdrawing from Syria have acquired permission from the Iraqi Kurdish regional government to enter Iraq to later be transferred out of the country. It added that these troops do not have any approval to stay in Iraq.
The statement appears to contradict U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper who has said that under the current plan, all U.S. troops leaving Syria will go to western Iraq and the military will continue to conduct operations against the Islamic State group to prevent its resurgence.
Esper said he has spoken to his Iraqi counterpart about the plan to shift the more than 700 troops leaving Syria into western Iraq.