YPG in Syria. Photo: Getty
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Kurdish forces in Syria have announced their “direct relations with Russia,” saying they are receiving training from Russian forces. The Russian Ministry of Defense issued a statement denying that they are establishing a military presence in northern Syria beyond monitoring the ceasefire.
Russian forces are present in the western-most Kurdish canton of Afrin “as a result of an agreement between our forces and the Russian army,” Redur Xelil, spokesperson for the People’s Protection Units (YPG), announced in a published statement on Monday.
“The agreement was based in the framework of cooperation in the fight against terrorism and on the military training of our fighters by the Russian army. We have direct relations with Russia.”
Xelil described the cooperation as a “positive and good step in the fight against terrorism in Syria,” and noted that YPG forces are working with “many forces.”
Afrin is of one of three cantons constituting the autonomous northern Syrian region of Rojava. It is, however, geographically isolated from the cantons of Kobane and Cizre.
Afrin is bordered by Turkey to the north and west, rebel groups to the south west, regime forces to the south east, and Turkish-backed forces to the east.
Kurdish attempts to link Afrin with Kobane and Cizre were thwarted last summer when Turkey began backing the Free Syrian Army west of the Euphrates, taking control of territory from ISIS, including the cities of Jarablus and al-Bab.
The YPG received direct support from the coalition when it fought for Kobane, dealing the first significant defeat to ISIS with the support of airstrikes. It has continued to receive support as a member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the main coalition ally on the ground in northern Syria.
As the Pentagon develops a strategy for retaking the city of Raqqa, directly arming the YPG has been reported as one option being considered by US defense officials.
The YPG is reportedly trying to expand its numbers. “We aspire to exceed 100,000,” Xelil told Reuters, adding that they want to achieve this target by the “second half of 2017.”
According to Reuters, the YPG numbered 60,000 at the end of 2016, including the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ).
Reuters also reported that Russia was going to establish a military base in northwestern Syria, a report Russia denied. “There are no plans to deploy new Russian military bases on the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic,” the Russian Defense Ministry stated on Monday.
Russian forces have been deployed “in the contact area between detachment of the Kurdish militia and formations of the Free Syrian Army controlled by the Turkish party (near Afrin in the Aleppo province),” in order to prevent ceasefire violations, the ministry stated.
“Earlier, the Reuters news agency referring to representatives of the Kurdish militia had reported that Russia had been deploying a new military base in the north-west of Syria, and that the agreement with Moscow had included training of combatants from the Kurdish formations,” the ministry’s statement refuting the report concludes.