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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses an African Muslim Religious Leaders Summit, in Istanbul, today. AP/PA Images
Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Turkey vows to 'crush the heads' of Kurdish forces if they don't pull out of proposed safe zone

The top figure on the Kurdish side said Turkey was preventing his forces’ withdrawal and trying to blame the deal’s collapse on the Kurds.

PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP Erdogan has warned that Turkey will “crush the heads” of Kurdish forces if they do not withdraw from a proposed safe zone along the border under a US-brokered deal.

If the pullout does not happen by Tuesday evening, “we will start where we left off and continue to crush the terrorists’ heads,” Erdogan said in a televised speech in the central Anatolian city of Kayseri.

Turkey has agreed to suspend its Syria offensive for five days and to end the assault if Kurdish-led forces withdraw from the proposed safe zone away from the border, after talks with US Vice President Mike Pence in Ankara.

The offensive has killed dozens of civilians, mainly on the Kurdish side, and prompted hundreds of thousands to flee their homes in the latest humanitarian crisis of Syria’s eight-year civil war.

Erdogan also provided some details from his talks with the Americans, adding that Ankara agreed to the 120 hour time deadline after its initial demand of “one night” for the withdrawal.

“If the promises given to our country are not kept, as we did in the past we will not wait and restart the operation as soon as the time we have given ends,” he said. 

The Turkish leader said he also informed US President Donald Trump of Ankara’s position during a phone call late Friday.

The top figure on the Kurdish side, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) commander Mazloum Abdi, told AFP that Turkey was preventing his forces’ withdrawal and trying to blame the deal’s collapse on the Kurds.

“The Turks are preventing the withdrawal from the Ras al-Ain area, preventing the exit of our forces, the wounded and civilians,” Abdi said in a phone interview from Syria.

Erdogan is due to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi next Tuesday, which overlaps with the end of the 120-hour deadline.

Ankara considers Syrian Kurdish YPG militants to be an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – a group that has fought a bloody insurgency inside Turkey for 35 years.

Blame game

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported artillery shelling on Ras al-Ain and surrounding villages by Turkey’s Syrian proxies, the latest bombardment of the area since the truce.

The massively outgunned Kurds have agreed to the deal, whereby they should pull out of an Arab-majority area that includes Ras al-Ain and stretches about 120 kilometres along the border.

The Turkish defence ministry earlier had blamed the SDF for not upholding the ceasefire.

“Despite this, terrorists… carried out a total of 14 attacks in the last 36 hours,” it said, using its usual term for Kurdish fighters.

Turkish troops and its Syrian rebel proxies seized part of the town on Thursday, hitting a hospital.

Turkey wants to push Kurdish fighters away from its southern border by establishing a 30-kilometre deep “safe zone” on the Syrian side of the frontier.

syria-tal-abyad-turkish-forces The Turkish forces seen in Tal Abyad in northern Syria, 18 October. Xinhua News Agency / PA Images Xinhua News Agency / PA Images / PA Images

On Friday, Turkish airstrikes and mortar fire by allied Syrian fighters killed 14 civilians near Ras al-Ain, according to the Observatory.

Mazloum Abdi said the US was not doing enough to force Ankara to abide by the agreement, which was brokered by US Vice President Mike Pence.

“If there is no commitment, we shall consider what happened a game between the Americans and Turkey — on one side preventing the troop withdrawal while on the other claiming our forces did not withdraw,” he said.

Kurds still want US

Syria’s Kurds had been a key partner in the US-backed battle against the Islamic State group in Syria, overrunning the last remnant of their self-proclaimed “caliphate” in March.

But earlier this month, US President Donald Trump announced he would withdraw US troops from northern Syria, in a move that was seen as green-lighting a Turkish attack.

The move has come under widespread criticism, even from within Trump’s own Republican party, notably because it opened the way for Russia to further extend its influence in Syria.

Despite what is widely perceived as a betrayal of America’s Kurdish allies, SDF commander Abdi said his forces had resumed working with the US-coalition against IS and insisted Washington’s presence in the country was important.

“We have restarted military action against IS cells in Deir Ezzor (in northern Syria). Our forces are working there with the coalition forces,” he told AFP.

The US troops that had been deployed near the Turkish boder have pulled back to areas not affected by the invasion but have not yet left the country.

“We want there to be a role for America in Syria, not only Russia and others monopolising the scene,” said Abdi, whose forces turned to the Moscow-backed regime of President Bashar al-Assad for protection when US troops pulled back. 

“It is in our interest that the American forces remain to maintain balance in Syria.”

The Turkish advance and chaos that ensued sparked concerns that thousands of IS suspects and their family members in Kurdish custody could break out and bring about a resurgence of the extremist group.

‘Strategic nightmare’ 

US Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell called Trump’s decision “a strategic nightmare”.

“Withdrawing US forces from Syria is a grave strategic mistake,” McConnell wrote in The Washington Post.

“It will leave the American people and homeland less safe, embolden our enemies, and weaken important alliances.”

The suspension of hostilities has looked designed to help Turkey achieve its main territorial goals without fighting.

The Kurds have little leverage left other than the custody of thousands of wanted jihadists of more than 50 different nationalities.

The autonomous Kurdish administration is now counting on Syrian government forces to keep Turkey and its proxies at bay along the border.

© – AFP 2019  

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