Russia has sent hundreds of additional troops to Syria to help patrol the country's Turkey-Syria border after a deal between Moscow and Ankara, the Russian Defense Ministry said Friday.
The ministry said about 300 military police have arrived in Syria to patrol the northeastern areas along the border with Turkey and oversee the pullout of Syrian Kurdish fighters from there. Military cargo planes also airlifted 20 armored vehicles for the mission, it added.
After Turkey invaded northeastern Syria this month, an offensive enabled by President Donald Trump's abrupt pullout of U.S. troops, Moscow and Ankara struck a deal splitting control of northeastern Syria.
The new Russian troops sent in — as American soldiers pull out — further underscore how the situation on the ground in Syria has dramatically changed with Turkey's invasion and subsequent developments.
Turkey has now been allowed to keep control over a significant chunk of northeastern Syria, a belt of land on its border in the northeast that it invaded on Oct. 9, along with a larger piece of the border in the northwest that Turkey already holds, captured in previous incursions.
Russia said Friday the additional battalion of military police dispatched to Syria comes from Chechnya, a Russian region that saw two devastating separatist wars in the late 1990s and the early 2000s before Moscow regained control. Troops from Chechnya, known for their fierce warrior spirit, have regularly been sent to Syria on rotation bases in recent years.
The Defense Ministry said military police on Friday patrolled a new route along the border, covering more than 200 kilometers (124 miles) in a round trip between the city of Kamishli and the Matala settlement.
The Russian military does not release the total number of its contingent in Syria, and it did not say on Friday how many troops will be involved in the patrol mission on the Turkish border.
Under the Moscow-Ankara deal, Turkey is to keep sole control of a large section in the center of the border area, most of which was captured in its invasion this month, aimed at driving the U.S.-allied Kurdish forces out of a "safe zone" along the border.
Syrian government and Russian military police are to control the rest of the 440-kilometer (273-mile) Syria-Turkey border. They are to ensure that Syrian Kurdish fighters, who were U.S. allies in the fight against the Islamic State group and who freed most of the region of IS, pull 30 kilometers (19 miles) away from the frontier. After that, Russia and Turkey are to begin joint patrols along a narrower strip directly on the Turkish-Syrian border.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Russian military has been in close contact with the Syrian Kurdish fighters, doing a "delicate job" of coordinating their pullout from the border areas. He noted that the Kurds have pledged to abide by the deal, adding that the failure to do so would put them in trouble.
"If the Kurdish units with their weapons aren't pulled back from that zone, they will regrettably be left face to face with the Turkish military because (Syrian) border guards and Russian military police wouldn't stand between them," Peskov said in a conference call with reporters.
A large wedge of eastern Syria remains in the hands of the Kurdish-led fighters. That includes the bulk of Syria's oil fields, which deprives Damascus of control over a crucial resource and gives the Syrian Kurds a major bargaining chip. Trump has said some U.S. troops will remain there to help Kurds "secure" the oil fields.
The Kurdish fighters captured the main fields from the Islamic State group and since then have helped finance their self-rule by selling the crude, mainly to the Syrian government.
Pentagon chief Mark Esper said the U.S. is considering sending troops and armored vehicles into the area around the oil fields in northeastern Syria to ensure that IS militants don't get access to the oil, enabling them to rebuild.
Speaking at a news conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels, he didn't provide any details about the possible number of troops, except to say that the U.S. will maintain a "reduced presence" in the war-torn country.
Moscow has argued that the U.S. troops' presence in Syria is illegitimate as they lack Damascus' permission to stay. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said Moscow is "concerned by frequently changing signals from Washington about its plans and intentions toward Syria."
Ryabkov charged that the U.S. may use its troops presence near oil fields to continue to exert pressure on Damascus.
All sides have vowed to abide by a cease-fire under the Russian-Turkish deal, but Syria's state-run SANA reported an attack by Turkish troops and allied Syrian rebels on Syrian army positions on Thursday, outside the town of Tal Tamr. Separately, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said Thursday that three of its fighters were killed in fighting with Turkish-backed forces.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan renewed a threat Thursday to resume the military offensive if his country continued to be "harassed" by the Kurdish militia. He also said Turkey would "crush" any Syrian Kurdish fighter its military comes across while trying to secure areas under its control.
The commander of the Syrian Kurdish-led force, Mazloum Abdi, said Trump had assured him in a phone call that American forces will "stay here for a long time and their partnership with Syrian Democratic Forces will continue for a long time."
Erdogan, meanwhile, told Turkey's state television TRT that the U.S. should hand Abdi over to Turkey, calling him a "terrorist" wanted in Turkey.
Ankara considers Syrian Kurdish fighters terrorists, aligned with a Kurdish insurgency within Turkey and wants them out of the border zone. It has justified its invasion by saying it needs to safeguard Turkey's territory and hopes to resettle Syrian refugees now hosted by Turkey in the border area.
The Turkish offensive has triggered new flows of refugees. The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, said that so far more than 10,100 Syrian refugees, mostly women and children, have crossed into Iraq seeking safety. It also estimated that some 180,000 people have been internally displaced across Syria's north-east.