By Tom Perry | BEIRUT (Reuters)
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.
SIGHTS ON RAQQA
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.
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.