Russia is setting up a military base in northwestern Syria in agreement with the Syrian-Kurdish YPG armed group that controls the area and will train fighters, a YPG spokesman said on Monday.
The agreement with Russia was concluded on Sunday and Russian troops have already arrived at the village of Kafr Jina, in the northwestern region of Afrin, with troop carriers and armoured vehicles, YPG spokesman Redur Xelil told Reuters news agency.
“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 statement.
“It is the first [agreement] of its kind,” he added.
However, in a statement put out shortly after news broke of the alleged deal, the Russian Defence Ministry said there were “no plans” to create additional military bases in Syrian territory, but added that a section of its “reconciliation centre” was located in Aleppo province close to Afrin for the prevention of ceasefire violations.
The YPG announcement angered neighbouring Turkey. Ankara views YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is waging an insurgency inside Turkey aimed at gaining greater autonomy.
Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said it would not accept a “region of terror” in northern Syria, and the ethnic structure of the area should be kept intact.
Turkey has launched a cross-border offensive along a section of the Turkish-Syrian frontier to prevent further gains by YPG, which controls swathes of northeastern Syria and the Afrin pocket of northwestern Syria.
Turkey’s troops pushed into Syria in August of last year in efforts to push Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) away from its border and to prevent Kurdish efforts to connect its two pockets of control in Syria’s north.
YPG – or the People’s Protection Units – is also allied to the United States in the fight against ISIL, and is playing a major part in the US-backed offensive against ISIL’s urban stronghold of Raqqa, further east.
“The agreement came into force today,” Xelil said, declining to say how many Russian troops had arrived in Kafr Jina, the place where the base is being established.
Kafr Jina has previously been shelled by Turkish forces from across the nearby frontier, Xelil added.
The spokesman also said the YPG aims to expand its fighting force by nearly two-thirds to more than 100,000 fighters.
The group had about 60,000 fighters at the end of 2016, he said, and has already formed 10 new battalions – each comprised of 300 fighters – since the start of this year.
The 10 new units and other new battalions to be formed this year will be trained in all forms of combat, weaponry and tactics, with the aim of turning the YPG into a more organised force that resembles a traditional army, Xelil said.
“A disciplined, cohesive military force, well-trained in different tactics of war … is the true guarantee to defend us and to affirm our presence as a great nation that deserves dignity,” said a YPG leaflet seeking recruits for the new battalions that has been circulated in the predominantly Kurdish regions of Syria, which is home to roughly two million Kurds.
Each fighter will reportedly receive a monthly salary of $200, which is $20 above the maximum wage currently paid to YPG fighters.
Aaron Stein, a senior fellow at the US-based Atlantic Council, told AFP news agency that Russia was now partnering with the Kurds as they had become an important player in Syria.
“The Kurds are now the most consequential non-state actor in Syria, alongside al-Qaeda… They will have a huge say over the future of Syria,” Stein said.
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