Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria withdrew from a flash point town as part of a cease-fire agreement with Turkey, a spokesman said Sunday, a move that could ease tensions amid U.S.-led efforts to quell a spiraling conflict.
“As part of the agreement to pause military operations with Turkey … Today, we have evacuated the city of Ras al-Ain,” said Kino Gabriel, a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. “We don’t have any more fighters in the city.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had threatened to resume a military offensive in northeastern Syria if Kurdish fighters didn’t retreat from designated border areas by Tuesday evening, the deadline in the cease-fire pact.
Turkey’s offensive this month to rout Kurdish militants from the Syrian frontier has drawn international condemnation and set off a scramble for territory.
Vice President Mike Pence traveled to Turkey last week to negotiate a halt to the fighting as U.S. troops stationed in northeastern Syria prepared to withdraw.
Sporadic clashes between the SDF and Turkish forces and their proxies in recent days in Ras al-Ain, on the border with Turkey, threatened to undo the fragile agreement. Under the deal, Turkish forces would halt military operations for 120 hours to allow the SDF to retreat.
Turkey said Sunday that it was monitoring the evacuation of Kurdish militants it views as terrorists for their links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has waged a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state.
The Turkish Defense Ministry said Sunday it had sent a 55-vehicle convoy to Ras al-Ain. The ministry said a Turkish soldier was killed in an attack by Kurdish militants in Tel Abyad, about 75 miles west of Ras al-Ain.
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said Sunday that the cease-fire in northeastern Syria “generally seems to be holding” despite reports of “intermittent fire.”
He spoke to reporters traveling with him to the Afghan capital, Kabul.
“The U.S. withdrawal continues apace from northeast Syria,” he said. “Again, we’re talking weeks, not days.”
He said U.S. troops departing from Syria would go to western Iraq, where they would have two missions.
“One is to help defend Iraq and two is to perform a counter-ISIS mission as we sort through the next steps,” he said. “Things could change between now and whenever we complete the withdrawal, but that’s the game plan right now.”
President Donald Trump has said repeatedly that he wants to extract the United States from “endless wars” in the Middle East. The decision to move U.S. forces from Syria to Iraq highlights the challenges of reaching that goal.
The administration has sent thousands of troops to the region since the spring. The Pentagon said this month that 1,800 would deploy to Saudi Arabia to deter Iranian aggression.
Trump, who often praises Saudi Arabia as an important ally, said the kingdom “has agreed to pay us for everything we’re doing to help them.”
On ABC Sunday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended the decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northeast Syria, saying the president “believes we’ve accomplished a significant part of our mission and he wants our folks to come home.”
“This was about getting a cease fire and secure area, that this in fact would save lives in that space,” Pompeo said. “That was our mission set.”
(c) 2019, The Washington Post · Erin Cunningham