Turkey, Kurds each say other side broke truce

More violence erupts even as both parties claim to be abiding by US-brokered ceasefire

RAS AL-AIN (Syria) • Turkish and Kurdish leaders accused each other of violating a US-brokered truce in north-eastern Syria, even as it appeared to be taking hold on its second day yesterday.

The deal, announced late last Thursday, is intended to halt a Turkish-led offensive against Kurdish forces launched on Oct 9, on condition that they pull out of a "safe zone" on the Syrian side of the border.

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.

Yesterday, Turkey accused Kurdish forces of violating the truce.

Turkey's defence ministry said that its armed forces "fully abide by the agreement" reached last Thursday with the United States.

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

The ministry said 12 of the attacks came in the battleground border town of Ras al-Ain, one in Tal Abyad and another in the Tal Tamr area.

Heavy weapons fell silent in Ras al-Ain after sporadic clashes last Friday evening, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported.

STRATEGIC NIGHTMARE

Withdrawing US forces from Syria is a grave strategic mistake.

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

UNITED STATES SENATE MAJORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL

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

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) had yet to start pulling back yesterday.

At the central Turkish province of Kayseri yesterday, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that Turkey would continue to "crush the heads" of Kurdish forces if they did not withdraw from the "safe zone" by Tuesday evening when the 120-hour pause on operations would end.

Mr Erdogan also said he would discuss the deployment of Syrian government forces in the "safe zone" during talks with Russia's President Vladimir Putin this week, but warned that Ankara would "implement its own plans" if a solution was not reached.

SDF commander Redur Khalil said deadly bombardments by Turkey's forces last Friday were a major breach of the truce.

That day, Turkish air strikes and mortar fire by allied Syrian fighters killed 14 civilians in and around the village of Bab al-Kheir, the Observatory said.

"The Turkish side is not committing to the ceasefire and is not allowing the opening of a security corridor to evacuate the wounded and besieged civilians from Ras al-Ain," Mr Khalil told AFP, blaming the mediator of the ceasefire, the US.

The Turkish military and its Syrian proxies have so far seized around 120km of territory along the Syrian-Turkish border.

Syria's Kurds had been a key partner in the US-backed battle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

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

The move has come under widespread criticism, even from within Mr Trump's own Republican party.

US Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell last Friday attacked Mr Trump's decision to withdraw the troops as "a strategic nightmare", saying that it would help Washington's foes and hurt its allies.

A growing number of congressional Republicans expressed exasperation last Friday over what they view as Mr Trump's indefensible behaviour, a sign that the President's stranglehold on his party is starting to weaken as Congress hurtles towards a historic impeachment vote.

Many said they were repulsed by Mr Trump's decision to host an international summit at his own resort and incensed by acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney's admission - later withdrawn - that US aid to Ukraine was withheld for political reasons.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, WASHINGTON POST, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 20, 2019, with the headline 'Turkey, Kurds each say other side broke truce'. Print Edition | Subscribe