Ceylanpinar, Turkey – The presidents of Turkey and Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin, have agreed on a deal for Kurdish fighters – long a thorn in Ankara’s side – to withdraw from a Turkish-controlled “safe zone” in northeast Syria within 150 hours.
The announcement was made on Tuesday following marathon talks in the Russian southern city of Sochi that went on for more than six hours. Erdogan and Putin have backed opposing sides in Syria’s long-running war.
Following the agreement, Ankara and Moscow will run joint patrols east and west of the area, with the exception of the Syrian border city of Qamishli.
Putin, the powerful military ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, called the deal a “momentous agreement for Syria”.
The move came just as the US-brokered ceasefire between Turkey and Kurdish-led forces in northeast Syria expired with sporadic celebratory gunfire heard across the border in the Syrian city of Ras al-Ain.
On October 9, Turkey launched a military operation into northeast Syria, which it said was to drive the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) 32 kilometres (20 miles) from its border. Turkey also wants to build a safe zone for the 3.6 million Syrian refugees it is hosting to return to.
Ankara has long considered the People’s Protection Unit (YPG), which largely makes up the SDF, a terrorist group.
“If the YPG groups are still located along the border, the operation will restart immediately,” Yusuf Alabarda, a Turkish expert on international security, told Al Jazeera.
Alabarda dismissed the role the United States, an SDF ally in its fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS), would have in pressuring the Kurdish fighters to adhere to the deal.
“The only guarantee for the YPG to withdraw from the border is not due to US pressure, but from the Turkish forces on the terrain,” he said. “There are no armed forces on the ground that can challenge the Turkish army on its own border.”
The safe zone, which Ankara will control, will be a 32km-wide (20-mile) area between the towns of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain, covering a stretch of 120km (75 miles).
Turkey initially wanted the length of the safe zone to be 440km (273 miles) but Samuel Ramani, a doctoral researcher in international relations at the University of Oxford, said Turkey had to settle for the more practical option.
“Settling on this avoids a confrontation with Russia, it allows Turkey to cease its offensive and exempt itself from US sanctions, and satisfactorily results in the removal of the YPG,” said Ramani.
‘No one wants war’
In Ceylanpinar, Ibrahim Khalil sits outside his house. A Turkish flag is hanging on the edge of the roof in a sign marking “a martyr’s house”.
Khalil lost his 11-year-ol daughter Elif less than a day after Turkey’s military operation began.
A mortar attack from the SDF hit the front of the house, and the shrapnel killed Elif who was standing in the doorway. Her two-year-old brother Khalil was injured but he survived.
“My wife and children were waiting for their uncle to pick them up and take them to his village, some 60 kilometres away where it was safer,” said Khalil, who was working in Ankara at the time.
“Elif messaged me on Whatsapp that they were getting ready to leave the house. It was the last time I heard from her.”
His eyes glazed over. “Her loss is hard to bear,” he said.
The 42-year-old, who like many of the city’s residents, speaks Arabic and Turkish and is fully supportive of Turkey’s operation.
“No one wants war,” he said. “But this is about protecting our border. Turkey has no interest in occupying Syrian lands, but it has to defend its frontier against these terrorists,” he said in reference to the YPG.
Khalil stressed that the military operation was not against the Kurdish people.
“Syrians, Kurds, they are all my brothers,” he said. “How can Turkey be against the Kurdish people, when there are 10 million of them here?”
A brother of Elif, who was killed after a mortar attack landed outside their home, stands on the rooftop [Hosam Salem/Al Jazeera]
Restraining Turkey’s military capacity
The Syrian city of Qamishli, heavily populated by Kurds, is not part of the safe zone agreement between Syria and Russia.
For Ramani, this is indicative of Russia’s broader strategy, which wants to restrain the scope of Turkey’s military presence, following fears that Qamishli would be left at the mercy of Turkish forces.
“Russia wants to ensure that as many Kurdish areas as possible are returned to the Assad regime and become reintegrated in Syria,” he said.
Ramani also pointed out that the Sochi talks on the YPG and northern Syria were likely held in tandem with discussions on Idlib, the northwest opposition stronghold in Syria.
“Turkey is likely expected to make concessions on Idlib, to weaken the Syrian opposition, in exchange for Russian leeway on northern Syria and the scope of the safe zone,” he said.