ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – The Syria-based Rojava Information Center (RIC) on Sunday evening reported that Russian forces had pulled out from the main base in Ain Issa in northeast Syria, possibly in a bid to pressure the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to make a deal with the Assad government.
“Military sources in Ayn Issa have confirmed that the troops stationed at the main Russian military base in the city, located in the southeast, pulled back to Til Samen (near Raqqa), 20 km south, leaving some troops only in the three shared bases north of the city,” the RIC said in a tweet. Multiple sources supported the RIC claim.
The unofficial page of the SDF affiliate Tal Abyad Military Council also said that Russian forces had pulled back to Til Samen.
The RIC added that half of the Russian forces based in Tel Tamir in the Hasakah province have also left the city.
“Russia now threatens to withdraw completely out of Ayn Issa, Tel Tamir, and Sirrin (on the M4, south of Kobane).”
The RIC suggested that Russia is trying to pressure the SDF with a possible Turkish offensive and that there are renewed Turkish-Iranian-Russian talks on Syria.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) also reported that the Russians are attempting to put pressure on the SDF after it rejected demands of the Russians and the Syrian government, including the demand to hand over villages near Ain issa to Turkey, which would have cut off the road from Ain Issa to Kobani.
RIC told Kurdistan 24 on Monday that the Russians had returned to the area.
After Turkey conducted a cross-border incursion into northeastern Syria in October 2019, Russia and the US reached separate ceasefire deals with Ankara, which allowed Turkish troops to control the area between Tal Abyad and Serekaniye near the border of Turkey in Syria’s Hasakah province.
The Russia-Turkey deal involves the SDF withdrawing its forces up to 30 kilometers from the Turkish-Syrian border.
This deal also outlines joint Turkish-Russian patrols in a 10-kilometer-wide strip of land along the border that began on Nov. 1. Since then, the two sides have carried out dozens of such operations.
Pressure on the SDF to Hand Over Territory to the Syrian Government
Although US President Donald Trump initially decided in 2019 to withdraw all US forces from northeast Syria following a phone conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he was later convinced to keep some troops in the northeast to prevent critical oil fields from falling into the hands of Iran or the Islamic State.
As a result, there are still US troops in Hasakah and Deir al-Zor, which contain the majority of Syria’s oil resources. The Russian military eventually took over bases around Kobani, Manbij, and Raqqa that had been controlled by the US. They later occupied a former US base in Ain Issa and established one near Tel Temer.
When Turkey attacked Afrin in January 2018, Russia also approved the Turkish operations and withdrew its forces from the area. The Kurds at the time refused a Russian offer to instead hand Afrin over to the Syrian government.
However, when Turkey attacked the area again in October 2019, the SDFallowed Syrian government troops to be positioned on the frontline to counter Turkish-backed forces. But they did not hand over any territory to Damascus.
Despite the agreements, Turkish-backed groups and the Turkish army itself continue to periodically target areas held by the SDF. The territory near the key M4 highway near Ain Issa and Tel Tamir has faced the brunt of most attacks.
Local SDF officials fear there could be future Turkish attacks if Russia approves such an attack to pressure the SDF to make more concessions to Damascus.
In early December, Russia, the SDF, and the Syrian government reached an agreement to create three observation points north of Ain Issa to prevent further Turkish attacks. Despite the deal, fighting near Ain Issa has continued.
The Rojava Media Center on Sunday reported that Turkish-backed groups shelled Misherfa village, Al Nakhil restaurant and the M4 near Ain Issa.
Elizabeth Tsurkov, a non-resident fellow with the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy told Kurdistan 24 that in December 2019, after threats of a new Turkish offensive with its Syrian proxies (the SNA), the SDF agreed to allow Russia to establish a number of bases around Ayn Issa and allow for greater presence of regime forces in the area.
“The SDF did not really abide by the agreement and continues to maintain military dominance around Ayn Issa and other areas that were supposed to be under regime control,” she said.
“Therefore, it appears that once again, Russia is using the threat of a renewed Turkish-led offensive to compel the SDF to hand over control of the environs of Ayn Issa to them and the regime.”