Russia is setting up a military base in northwestern Syria in an agreement with the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia that controls the area, and will train its militants as part of the fight against terrorism, the militia's spokesman said on Monday. Russia's Defense Ministry has since denied the claim.
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YPG spokesman Redur Xelil told Reuters the agreement with Russia was concluded on Sunday, and that Russian troops had already arrived at the position in the northwestern region of Afrin with troop carriers and armored vehicles.
However, Russia said later on Monday it does not plan to open new military bases in Syria. Moscow added that it will establish a section of its "reconciliation center," which it says helps negotiate local truces between the warring sides, near Afrin for the prevention of cease-fire violations.
The move will likely anger neighboring Turkey. Ankara views the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which is waging an insurgency inside Turkey.
"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. "It is the first (agreement) of its kind," he added.
Turkey has launched a cross-border offensive along a section of the Turkish-Syrian frontier to prevent further gains by the YPG, which controls swathes of northeastern Syria and the Afrin pocket of northwestern Syria.
The YPG is also allied to the United States in the fight against ISIS in Syria, and is playing a major part in the U.S.-backed offensive against ISIS' urban stronghold of Raqqa, further east.
"The agreement came into force today," Xelil said, declining to say how many Russian troops had arrived in Jandaris, the place where the base is being established.
Jandaris has previously been shelled by Turkish forces from across the nearby frontier, Xelil added.
A Reuters analysis of publicly available tracking data shows Moscow has steadily built up its forces in Syria since a cease-fire collapsed in late September 2016, doubling supply runs by air and sea.
Moscow already has a permanent air base in Syria from which it flies airstrikes against anti-Assad rebels and uses military trainers, special forces, marines and artillery specialists to help support Syrian government forces on the ground.
Russia also has a naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus, which it upgraded and expanded in October 2016. Moscow inherited the Tartus facility when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and it is now the Russian navy's sole foothold in the Mediterranean. Despite some modernization, it is currently fairly modest and unable to welcome larger warships.