Fighting continues along Turkish-Syrian border despite US-brokered pause in hostilities

Original article by Josie Ensor, Beirut and Raf Sanchez, Middle East Correspondent, October 18th, 2019

Turkish soldiers are seen in the border town of Tal Abyad, Syria
Turkish soldiers are seen in the border town of Tal Abyad,
Syria Credit: Turkish Defence Ministry/Handout via REUTERS

A British volunteer with Syria’s Kurds has described the “horrifying experience” of pulling the victims of Turkish air strikes out of the rubble, as fighting continued along the Turkish-Syrian border despite a declared ceasefire.

Danielle Ellis, a 29-year-old Oxford University graduate from London, had been part of a civilian convoy attempting to deliver aid to residents of a village in the border town of Ras al-Ayn when they came across corpses buried in the ruins.

The group stopped before reaching the town after they were warned they were in firing range of gunmen from the Syrian National Army (SNA), which is fighting in northern Syria alongside Turkish forces.

“We passed a pile of rubble in the last village before Seri Kaniyê (the Kurdish name for Ras al-Ayn), part of it was still smouldering,” the former engineering student told the Telegraph by phone. “A few people decided to have a look. 

“There were a lot of bodies. I counted 10, but there were other sites being worked on so there may have been more,” she said.

Danielle Ellis spoke of the horror of pulling corpses from rubble
Danielle Ellis spoke of the horror of pulling corpses from rubble

“It had been completely destroyed by airstrikes. They were all adults, I’m pretty sure men but it was impossible to say for sure because they were in a pretty bad way.”

She said she also could not be sure whether they had been fighters with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) or civilians.

“One of the bodies I pulled out had a gun embedded in it – it could have been military but also many picked up arms to fight Turkey,” said Miss Ellis, who has been a civil defence volunteer with the Kurds for almost a year. “There were children’s things about, a family had been living in the house at some point.

“We got most of the bodies out but some of them we had to leave as they were under reinforced concrete,” she said, guessing from the smell that they had been there for several days.

“All my clothes smell of death. It’s under my fingernails,” she said. “It was horrifying.”

Both sides accused the other of violating the five-day ceasefire, negotiated by Turkey and the US. Ras al-Ayn seemed the immediate test of the truce.

Before the deal’s announcement, Turkish-backed forces had encircled the town and were battling fierce resistance from Kurdish fighters inside.

After a brief lull, artillery fire and ground clashes were reported mid-morning. By the evening more than 14 Syrian civilians were reported to have been killed, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The Syrian Kurds raised further uncertainty over a ceasefire deal, which was announced after Mike Pence, the US Vice President, held meetings with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, that already was vague on key points and left significant questions unanswered. 

The Kurdish administration said some provisions of the deal, which was favourable to Turkey, “need further discussion with the United States.”

Under the terms of the agreement, there will be a five-day pause in fighting while Kurdish forces withdraw from the border, an arrangement that hands Turkey most of what it was looking to achieve with its military offensive. 

However, the two sides appeared to have different interpretations of which areas Kurdish forces would withdraw from. Turkey said the Kurds must withdraw from all parts of the Turkish border, while the Kurds said the deal applied to only a 100-mile strip between Ras al-Aiy and Tal Abyad. 

Donald Trump likened Syria and Turkey to "kids" 
Donald Trump likened Syria and the Kurds to “kids”
Credit: Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump drew criticism for his crowing performance at a political rally in Texas, where he compared the Turks and Kurds to children fighting in a park and said “a little tough love” was needed to broker a deal. 

“Sometimes you have to let them fight, like two kids in a lot. You have to let them fight, and then you pull them apart,” he said, calling the deal “an amazing outcome”. 

Mr Trump referred to Mr Erdoğan as “a gentleman” and said the Turkish president’s visit to Washington next month would go ahead despite the bloodshed in northeast Syria. 

Brett McGurk, who served under Mr Trump as coordinator of the coalition against the Islamic State (Isil), called the president’s comments “obscene and ignorant”. 

Donald Tusk, EU Council President, said it was “not a ceasefire, it is a demand for the capitulation of the Kurds”, while French President Emmanuel Macron called the Turkish operation “madness.”

Thousands of people have been displaced by the violence
Thousands of people have been displaced by the violence Credit: HO/AFP via Getty Images

Mr Macron added that he expects to meet Mr Erdoğan alongside Boris Johnson, Prime Minister, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in London in the coming weeks.

More than a hundred civilians have been killed on both sides of the border since the fighting began and around 200,000 people have been displaced from their homes. 

Amnesty International said Friday that Turkey and its Syrian rebel allies had “displayed a shameful disregard for civilian life” and committed “serious violations and war crimes” during the course of the offensive. 

Ilnur Cevik, a Turkish presidential adviser, rejected the criticism as “black propaganda” and said Turkish forces had deliberately advanced slowly in urban areas to minimise civilian casualties.

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