Russia Setting Up Base in Northwest Syria to Train Kurdish Militia, Kurds Claim

Members of the Syrian Kurdish People's Defense Units (YPG) celebrate their victory against ISIS in Kobane, Northern Syria, 26 January 2015. Photo: EPA/REX/Shutterstock

  • Syrian Kurdish militia YPG says it made a deal with Russia for a Russian military base in Northwest Syria.
  • Russia has denied the announcement, styling its respective presence a “reconciliation center”.
  • Agreement seen as signifying YPG’s worth as an anti-ISIS force as the Syrian Kurds have managed to cooperate with both the USA and Russia in the Syrian Civil War.
  • Turkey is staunchly opposed to the YPG and US support for them because of the militia’s alleged link to the PKK, the illegal insurgency network of the Turkish Kurds.

Russia and the Syrian Kurdish militia YPG have struck a deal for establishing a Russian military base in Northwest Syria, a spokesman for YPG has revealed.

However, Russia’s Defense Ministry has downplayed the announcement by claiming it only had a branch of a “reconciliation center” located near Afrin, Aleppo province, in Northwest Syria, which helps negotiate ceasefire deals among the different warring factions in the Syrian Civil War.

The so called People’s Protection Units (YPG) is a militia of the ethnic Kurds in Syria, which is also backed by the United States, as it makes the bulk of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a grouping of rebels including also ethnic Assyrians, Turkmen, Armenians and Arabs, which opposes the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad but fights mostly against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Turkey, another US ally, which in the recent months has been cooperating with Russia and Iran for a settlement in Syria, is especially worried about the growth of the YPG.

It says the militia of the Syrian Kurds and its political wing are connected with the PKK (“Kurdistan Workers’ Party), a group using violence to fight for the autonomy or independence of the Kurds living in Southeast Turkey.

Russia intervened in the Syrian Civil War in October 2015 rescuing the Assad regime with air and missile strikes against Islamist and moderate opposition rebels.

Members of Syrian Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG) prepare to go out on patrol in Kobane, Northern Syria, 30 January 2015. Photo: Sedat Suna/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

‘First of Its Kind’

YPG spokesman Redur Xelil told Reuters on Monday the Syrian Kurdish militia’s agreement with Russia for a military base had been concluded on Sunday.

In his words, Russian troops 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,” YPG representative Xelil explained in a written message.

“Such an agreement would further illustrate 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,” Reuters comments.

“This is what pushed many forces to cooperate and make alliances with the YPG,” Xelil is quoted as saying, referring to the YPG’s effectiveness in “fighting terrorism”.

“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’s Stance

Reuters notes that a Russian military base at Afrin would prevent attacks against the YPG from Turkey to the north, not unlike the case earlier in March when a deployment of US forces near Manbij, 100 km (60 miles) to the east of Afrin, is reported to have prevented a Turkish assault on forces allied with the YPG which are in control of the city.

The attack was prevented even though Turkey and its Syrian rebel allies, the Free Syrian Army, had vowed to conquer Manbij.

Turkey and the Free Syrian Army have been on the offensive in Northern Syria in order to preclude the Syrian Kurdish militia YPG from expanding west the area south of the Turkish border that it controls.

Kurdish flags fly near YPG Kurdish fighters standing on a hill after they recaptured it from Islamic State militants near Kobane, Syria, seen from Suruc District, Sanliurfa Turkey, 29 January 2015. Photo: Sedat Suna/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

YPG spokesman Redur Xelil told Reuter the military base agreement between Russia and the Syrian Kurds had come into force as of Monday.

He also revealed that the area of the Russian deployment near Afrin, Kafr Jina, was recently under artillery fire from Turkish forces situated north of the border, inside Turkey.

Xelil did not reveal how many Russian troop had arrived in Kafr Jina near Afrin, nor how many more are expected to arrive.

The People’s Protection Units (YPG) of the Syrian Kurds made it clear that they wanted to grow their forces from the current level of some 30,000+ fighters to over 100,000 fighters throughout the course of 2017.

The US has been supporting the YPG against ISIS, adding recently US troops on the ground to aid with artillery fire a Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) offensive against the capital of ISIS Raqqa.

This US policy has been much to Turkey’s frustration, which has been urging to US to quit backing the YPG, and to support an offensive against Raqqa by its own Syrian rebel allies, the Free Syrian Army.

Even though the YPG is technically opposed to the Russia-backed regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, both sides have mostly avoided direct confrontation during the six-year civil war so far.

The Syrian Civil War began in March 2011 as civil unrest against the Assad regime. Since then it has seen massive international involvement and the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and has resulted in nearly 500,000 casualties, over 4 million refugees, and over 7 million internally displaced persons.

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