YPG receiving training from Russia in Afrin, says spokesman
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Kurdish forces in Syria have announced their “direct relations with Russia,” saying they are receiving training from Russian forces. The Russian Ministry of Defense issued a statement denying that they are establishing a military presence in northern Syria beyond monitoring the ceasefire.
Russian forces are present in the western-most Kurdish canton of Afrin “as a result of an agreement between our forces and the Russian army,” Redur Xelil, spokesperson for the People’s Protection Units (YPG), announced in a published statement on Monday. “The agreement was based in the framework of cooperation in the fight against terrorism and on the military training of our fighters by the Russian army. We have direct relations with Russia.”
Xelil described the cooperation as a “positive and good step in the fight against terrorism in Syria,” and noted that YPG forces are working with “many forces.”
Afrin is of one of three cantons constituting the autonomous northern Syrian region of Rojava. It is, however, geographically isolated from the cantons of Kobane and Cizre. Afrin is bordered by Turkey to the north and west, rebel groups to the south west, regime [Syrian government] forces to the south east, and Turkish-backed forces to the east. Kurdish attempts to link Afrin with Kobane and Cizre were thwarted last summer when Turkey began backing the Free Syrian Army west of the Euphrates, taking control of territory from ISIS, including the cities of Jarablus and al-Bab.
The YPG received direct support from the coalition when it fought for Kobane, dealing the first significant defeat to ISIS with the support of airstrikes. It has continued to receive support as a member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the main coalition ally on the ground in northern Syria.
As the Pentagon develops a strategy for retaking the city of Raqqa, directly arming the YPG has been reported as one option being considered by US defense officials.
The YPG is reportedly trying to expand its numbers. “We aspire to exceed 100,000,” Xelil told Reuters, adding that they want to achieve this target by the “second half of 2017.” According to Reuters, the YPG numbered 60,000 at the end of 2016, including the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ).
Reuters also reported that Russia was going to establish a military base in northwestern Syria, a report Russia denied. “There are no plans to deploy new Russian military bases on the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic,” the Russian Defense Ministry stated on Monday.
Russian forces have been deployed “in the contact area between detachment of the Kurdish militia and formations of the Free Syrian Army controlled by the Turkish party (near Afrin in the Aleppo province),” in order to prevent ceasefire violations, the ministry stated.
“Earlier, the Reuters news agency referring to representatives of the Kurdish militia had reported that Russia had been deploying a new military base in the north-west of Syria, and that the agreement with Moscow had included training of combatants from the Kurdish formations,” the ministry’s statement refuting the report concludes.
U.S.-allied Kurds strike deal with Russia in Syria-Kurdish militia
By Tom Perry, Reuters, March 20, 2017
BEIRUT – Russia is setting up a military base in northwestern Syria in agreement with the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia and will help train its fighters, the YPG said, a step likely to anger Turkey as it tries to block Kurdish gains in the north of the country. There was no immediate comment from Russia or Turkey.
One of the major forces in the Syrian conflict, the YPG is also a military ally of the United States and is playing a major part in U.S.-backed operations against Islamic State in areas of Syria further to the east. YPG spokesman Redur Xelil told Reuters the agreement had been concluded on Sunday and that Russian troops had already arrived at the position in the northwestern region of Afrin with troop carriers and armored vehicles. “It is the first (agreement) of its kind,” he said in a written message.
The agreement shows how the Syrian Kurds have managed to bring both Washington and Moscow onto their side after showing themselves as an organized force able to confront jihadist groups and take back territory from Islamic State.
The Russian deployment could help deter cross-border attacks against the Kurdish-dominated area of Afrin from Turkey, which is hostile to the YPG, seeing it as an arm of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that is pressing an insurrection in Turkey. Earlier this month, some 100 km (60 miles) further east, a deployment of U.S. forces near Manbij deterred a Turkish attack against YPG-allied fighters who control that city, after Ankara and its Free Syrian Army rebel allies vowed to take it.
YPG control over swathes of northeastern Syria and the Afrin region of its northwest is of great concern to Turkey. Helped by allied FSA groups, Turkey has been waging an offensive in northern Syria to stop the YPG creating a contiguous Kurdish territory along most of its border with Syria.
Kafr Jina – the area where the Russian base is being set up – has previously been shelled by Turkish forces from across the nearby frontier, Xelil said. He declined to say how many Russian troops had arrived in Kafr Jina. “The agreement came into force today,” he said.
Xelil said the YPG had shown its effectiveness in “fighting terrorism”. “This is what pushed many forces to cooperate and make alliances with the YPG,” he said.
The YPG also said on Monday it planned to expand its force by about two thirds to more than 100,000 fighters this year with the aim of turning it into a more organized force that resembles a traditional army.
Russia deployed its air force in Syria in 2015 in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his war against insurgents battling to unseat him. Despite a long history of enmity between the Syrian Kurds and government, the YPG and Damascus have mostly avoided conflict in the six-year-old conflict.
“The Russian presence … comes in agreement between (the YPG) and the Russian forces operating in Syria in the framework of cooperation against terrorism and to help train our forces on modern warfare and to build a direct point of contact with Russian forces,” Xelil said in a written statement.
Turkey has been pressing Washington to abandon its alliance with the YPG and instead back its rebel allies in a final assault to capture Raqqa city, Islamic State’s remaining redoubt. The head of the YPG told Reuters last week the assault would begin in early April, and that the YPG would take part alongside Arab fighters. The Pentagon said no decision had been taken.
U.S. support in the fight against Islamic State is funneled to an alliance of militias called the Syrian Democratic Forces, which includes the YPG. Ankara views it as a front for the YPG.
Related news on Reuters:
Russia says has no plans for new military bases in Syria