Kurdish militants leave Syrian border town, giving Turkey control
Kurdish officials say their fighters have evacuated Ras al-Ayn, giving Turkey and its allies control of one of the border cities that has borne the brunt of fighting since Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from north-eastern Syria.
The Turkish defence ministry said a convoy of 86 vehicles left the city on Sunday afternoon carrying fighters from the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Front (SDF) and wounded civilians south to cities beyond the 20-mile buffer zone that Turkey is seeking to clear along its border with Syria.
Kino Gabriel, an SDF spokesman, confirmed Ras al-Ayn had been abandoned as part of a five-day, US-brokered ceasefire with Turkey, in place since Thursday. “We don’t have any more fighters in the city,” he said.
Fighters remain deployed in other areas inside the buffer zone including the cities Kobane and al-Darbasiyah, Kurdish activists said.
Hostilities in the 11-day-old campaign were paused last week to allow Kurdish fighters to safely retreat from the border area following talks in Ankara between the US vice-president Mike Pence and the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Turkey and the Kurds have both accused each other of violating the temporary truce.
Erdoğan said on Saturday that his country would “crush the heads” of Kurdish militants if they did not withdraw in time. He said he would discuss the deployment of Syrian government forces in the safe zone during talks with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, next week, but warned Ankara would “implement its own plans” if a solution was not reached.
Trump has faced rare bipartisan criticism in the US for his surprise announcement this month that American troops would stand aside as Turkey mounted an operation to push US-backed Kurdish forces in Syria, its allies in the fight against Isis, at least 20 miles (32km) away from its southern border.
The US withdrawal, which led the Kurds to turn to Moscow to broker an agreement with the Syrian regime to protect them against the Turkish onslaught, has been described by Congress’s most senior Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, as “a grave mistake”.
Former CIA director and retired US military general David Petraeus said on Sunday that the US had abandoned its Kurdish allies. “They took over 10,000 losses as the defeat of Islamic State was carried out, the elimination of the caliphate that Isis had,” he told CNN.
“This is a very sudden exit. And this does not end an endless war. It probably prolongs it, because this gives Isis an opportunity for a resurgence.”
Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, at the weekend led a bipartisan congressional delegation to Jordan, a staunch US ally that contributed to the global coalition that defeated Islamic State in Syria, and met the country’s ruler, King Abdullah II, on Saturday evening, to discuss the fallout from Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from neighbouring Syria.
Pelosi and other senior Democrats walked out of an acrimonious meeting with Trump over the issue last week and accused the president of having a “meltdown”.
It is “a critical time for the security and stability of the region”, Pelosi said in a statement from Amman. “With the deepening crisis in Syria after Turkey’s incursion, our delegation has engaged in vital discussions about the impact to regional stability, increased flow of refugees and the dangerous opening that has been provided to Isis, Iran and Russia,” she said.
Meanwhile, US troops were seen on Sunday leaving a key base in northern Syria with their equipment, apparently part of a broad US withdrawal ordered by Trump.
The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, who had accompanied Pence to Turkey, said on Sunday he was “optimistic” about the ceasefire. “There’s relatively little fighting, a little sporadic small-arms fire, a mortar or two,” he told ABC.
Erdoğan unleashed the offensive against the Kurds on 9 October, agreeing to a pause after Pence and Pompeo rushed to Turkey amid mounting international outrage.
The Turkish defence ministry said on Sunday that one Turkish soldier was killed in an attack by Kurdish fighters in the Tal Abyad border area.
The Kurdish Red Crescent, a humanitarian group unaffiliated with the International Committee of the Red Cross, said 20 civilians had died and another 20 had been injured in attacks by Turkey or its allies since the start of the ceasefire.
Pelosi’s unscheduled visit was in keeping with several overseas delegations led by the House that have highlighted gaps between the Trump administration’s position and those held by Congress, including by many Republicans.
In April she visited the Irish border to warn about the risk of a hard Brexit threatening the Good Friday agreement, which the US helped to broker in 1998. Trump administration officials have said they would “enthusiastically” back Britain leaving the EU without a deal.
Pelosi and other congressional leaders attended the Munich security conference in February, delivering reassuring messages to some of the European leaders whom Trump has accused of failing to contribute their share to Nato and the US-led campaign against Isis.
Pilots from Jordan took part in airstrikes as part of the US-led coalition against Isis, a role that became prominent after the capture and filmed murder of a Jordanian air force lieutenant, Muath al-Kasasbeh, by Isis militants.
There are thought to be up to 2,000 Jordanian members of Isis held in makeshift prisons across north-east Syria. The US continues to deploy troops at the al-Tanf base on the Syrian border with Jordan.
A report by Petra News, Jordan’s state-run news agency, said the king “stressed the need to reach a political solution to the crisis that preserves the unity of Syria and its people and guarantees the voluntary and safe return of refugees”.