The movements come a day after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin reached an agreement that would transform the map of northeast Syria, installing their forces along the border and filling the void left by the abrupt withdrawal of American troops. The Kurdish fighters, who once relied on the U.S. forces as protection from Turkey, were given a deadline of next Tuesday evening to pull back from border areas they have not already left.
“It’s quite obvious that if the Kurdish units don’t withdraw with their weapons then Syrian border guards and Russian military police will have to step back,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday, “and the remaining Kurdish units will be steamrolled by the Turkish army.”
Turkey considers the Kurdish fighters terrorists because of their links to Kurdish insurgents in Turkey. It has demanded they retreat from the entire border region, creating a “safe zone” where Turkey could also settle some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees on its soil.
Kurdish forces completed withdrawing on Tuesday from a stretch of territory 75 miles wide along the border and 19 miles deep between the towns of Ras al-Ayn and Tal Abyad, the Associated Press reported.
The new agreement with Russia allows Turkey to keep sole control over that area. For the rest of the northeastern border, Russian and Syrian government forces will move in to ensure the Kurdish fighters leave.
The Russian Defense Ministry said Wednesday that a convoy of military police had crossed the Euphrates River and deployed in the Syrian border town of Kobane.
“The military police will help protect the population, maintain order, patrol the designated areas and assist in the withdrawal of Kurdish units and their weapons 30 kilometers away from the border,” it added.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusolgu said the deal with Russia would continue until a lasting political solution for Syria is reached. He also said that Turkey agreed not to conduct joint patrols in the city of Qamishli at the eastern end of the border, because of Russian concerns they could lead to a confrontation between Turkish troops and Syrian government forces in the area.
Iraqi Defense Minister Najah al-Shammari, meanwhile, told The Associated Press Wednesday that American troops that have left Syria for Iraq will only be “transiting” the country and would leave within four weeks, heading either to Kuwait, Qatar or the United States.
Al-Shammari spoke after meeting U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who earlier this week had said the American forces from Syria would remain in Iraq to fight the Islamic State group.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.