Syria: Erdogan calls on US to hand over SDF leader as Kurdish forces begin withdrawal

Turkey has been accused of breaching the ceasefire in north-east Syria

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday urged the US to hand over the commander of a Kurdish-led force that fought against ISIS, insisting he was a "wanted terrorist".

Ties between the US and Turkey are particularly strained over years-long American support for the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, viewed as terrorists by Ankara.

Much of the Syrian Democratic Forces who fought against the extremist group ISIS backed by US air support are Kurdish fighters from the YPG. Mazlum Abdi is the head of the SDF.

"This codenamed Mazlum is a terrorist sought with a red bulletin [issued by Interpol]," Mr Erdogan told state broadcaster TRT. "America must hand over this man."

A group of senators including Lindsey Graham this week urged the US State Department to fast-track a visa for Mr Abdi so he could speak to officials on the situation unfolding in Syria.

US President Donald Trump said in a tweet Thursday that he had talked with Mr Abdi and "really enjoyed" the conversation.

"He appreciates what we have done and I appreciate what the Kurds have done," Mr Trump said.

Kurdish forces in north-east Syria left areas along the border with Turkey on Thursday under a deal in which Damascus, Ankara and Moscow will decide the future of their former autonomous region.

Russian forces have started patrols along the frontier, filling the vacuum left by a US troop withdrawal that returned a third of the country to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.

Mr Trump praised the agreement reached in Sochi by Nato member Turkey with Russia, and rejoiced that US personnel were leaving the “long bloodstained sand” of Syria.

He said the US would leave just a small contingent behind “where they have the oil”.

And on Thursday, the US Defence Department said it planned to beef up its presence in the north-east corner of Syria to protect oil fields there from being retaken by any resurgence by ISIS.

"The US is committed to reinforcing our position, in co-ordination with our SDF partners, in north-east Syria with additional military to prevent those oilfields from falling back to into the hands of ISIS or other destabilising actors," a defence official said.

The deal signed in Sochi by Syria’s two main foreign brokers gives Kurdish forces until Tuesday to withdraw to a line 30 kilometres from the border.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that the Kurdish-led SDF had pulled out of some areas at the eastern end of the border on Thursday.

The Observatory reported clashes near the town of Tel Tamer between SDF fighters and Syrian former rebels paid by Turkey.

Mr Abdi on Twitter accused the Turkish-led troops of breaking the truce on the eastern front of Ras Al Ain.

“Guarantors of the ceasefire must carry out their responsibilities to rein in the Turks,” he said.

The events were expected to prompt strong discussion at a Nato defence ministers meeting in Brussels on Thursday and Friday.

At the meeting on Thursday, Turkey was isolated among the 29 member states because of its incursion this month against Kurdish fighters, considered terrorists by Ankara but key in the fight against ISIS in Syria.

Russian and Syrian government forces were setting up across the Kurdish heartland to assist “the removal of YPG elements and their weapons”.

Kurdish forces had already left a 120km segment of the border strip – an Arab-majority area between Ras Al Ain and Tel Abyad.

Turkey’s Defence Ministry said five Turkish soldiers were wounded on Thursday after an attack by Kurdish fighters in the same area.

They were injured after “drone, mortar and light weapon attacks” while conducting reconnaissance and surveillance, the ministry said on Twitter.

Syria’s state news agency accused Turkish forces and their allies of attacking government troops on Thursday, killing some.

The fighting underscored the risks of violence as armed forces jostle for new positions in the tight north-east border zone.

The SDF withdrawal from that area came after Turkey and its Syrian proxies launched a deadly cross-border offensive on October 9.

Mr Erdogan hopes to use zone to resettle at least half of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees his country hosts.

Under the Sochi deal, the area will remain under the full control of Turkey, unlike the rest of the projected buffer zone, which will eventually be jointly patrolled by Turkey and Russia.

About 300,000 people have fled their homes since the start of the Turkish offensive and many Kurds among them seem unlikely to return.

The Syrian regime also killed seven civilians in an olive market in Idlib province on Thursday, with rockets falling on a village north of the town of Jisr Al Shughour, the Observatory said.

The Idlib region has about three million residents, half of whom were displaced from other parts of the country, and is controlled by Syria’s former Al Qaeda affiliate.

Mr Al Assad’s forces launched a blistering campaign against Idlib in April, killing about 1,000 civilians and forcing tens of thousands to flee their homes.

At the Brussels meeting, Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg refused to condemn Turkey, saying it had "legitimate security concerns" along its border with Syria.

On his arrival, Mr Stoltenberg confirmed the ministers “will address the situation in north-east Syria”, where he said a Turkey-US ceasefire accord struck last week had reduced fighting.