U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence said Turkey has agreed to a ceasefire in northern Syria on Thursday.
Pence and a U.S. delegation met Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan earlier to persuade him to halt an offensive against Kurdish fighters.
Pence said Erdogan agreed to a “pause in military operations for 120 hours” to let the U.S. facilitate the withdrawal of Kurdish YPG fighters from the contested area of Syria. Turkey pledged not to bomb during this time, while Pence said U.S. forces in the region had already begun to facilitate a safe disengagement of YPG units.
The deal struck with Erdogan also provided for Turkey not to engage in military operations in the flashpoint Syrian border town of Kobani.
Pence said the United States and Turkey had committed to a peaceful resolution of Ankara’s demand for a “safe zone” in northern Syria near Turkey’s border, one of the objectives of the Turkish offensive, while U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that a great deal of work remains to be done in the region.
After the Kurdish forces are cleared from the safe zone, Turkey has committed to a permanent ceasefire but is under no obligation to withdraw its troops. That, according to one U.S. official, is tantamount to allowing Turkey to occupy the safe zone — essentially giving Turkey what it had sought to achieve with its military operation in the first place.
“The safe zone will be primarily enforced by the Turkish Armed Forces,” a joint U.S.-Turkish statement said.
Ankara has long argued the Kurdish fighters are nothing more than an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which has waged a guerrilla campaign inside Turkey since the 1980s and which Turkey, as well as the U.S. and European Union, designate as a terrorist organization.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu insisted that Turkey had agreed to a “pause” in fighting, rejecting the term ceasefire, which he said is only possible between “two legitimate sides.”
“We will only halt our operation after the terrorist elements depart,” northeast Syria, Cavusoglu added. “The pause does not mean that our soldiers and our forces will withdraw. We remain there and continue to be there.”
A senior adviser to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, meanwhile, told Al-Mayadeen TV that the ceasefire is “vague.”
Top Assad adviser Bouthaina Shaaban said Damascus “cannot accept” another Iraqi Kurdistan in Syria. Shaaban added that “important steps” had been taken so far with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, but that all remaining issues could not be resolved at once.
Mazloum Kobani, the SDF’s commander, told Ronahi TV that they will accept the ceasefire and do what is necessary to make it work.
Kobani said the agreement is “just the beginning” and will not be able to achieve the goals of Turkey, adding that the agreement was limited to the northern Syria border areas running between the towns of Ras al-Ayn and Tel Abyad.
The assault created a new humanitarian crisis in Syria, with 200,000 civilians taking flight, a security alert over thousands of ISIS fighters abandoned in Kurdish jails and a political maelstrom at home for U.S. President Donald Trump.
Trump, speaking in Fort Worth, Texas, called the ceasefire an “amazing outcome.”
“This outcome is something they’ve been trying to get for 10 years, everybody, and they couldn’t get it. Other administrations, they never would have been able to get it unless you went somewhat unconventional. I guess I’m an unconventional person,” Trump said, before praising Erdogan as a “hell of a leader” and a “tough man.”
This is a great day for civilization. I am proud of the United States for sticking by me in following a necessary, but somewhat unconventional, path. People have been trying to make this “Deal” for many years. Millions of lives will be saved. Congratulations to ALL!
Erdogan responded on Twitter, saying “many more lives will be saved when we defeat terrorism.”
Mr. President, many more lives will be saved when we defeat terrorism, which is humanity’s arch enemy. I am confident that this joint effort will promote peace and stability in our region.
‘Seriously undermines’ U.S. credibility
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer on Thursday called the agreement a “sham.”
“[It] seriously undermines the credibility of America’s foreign policy and sends a dangerous message to our allies and adversaries alike that our word cannot be trusted. President Erdogan has given up nothing, and President Trump has given him everything,” the top Congressional Democrats said in a statement.
They said the House of Representatives would vote on a bipartisan sanctions package against Turkey next week.
Trump suggested Wednesday that a Kurdish group was a greater terror threat than the ISIS group, and he welcomed the efforts of Russia and the Bashar al-Assad government to fill the void left after he ordered the removal of nearly all U.S. troops from Syria amid a Turkish assault on the Kurds.
“Syria may have some help with Russia, and that’s fine,” Trump said. “They’ve got a lot of sand over there. So, there’s a lot of sand that they can play with.”
He added: “Let them fight their own wars.”
There has been severe condemnation of Trump’s failure to deter Erdogan’s assault on the Kurds, his subsequent embrace of Turkish talking points about the former U.S. allies, which sparked bipartisan outrage in the U.S. and calls for swift punishment for the NATO ally.
Republicans and Democrats in the House, bitterly divided over the Trump impeachment inquiry, banded together Wednesday for an overwhelming 354-60 denunciation of the U.S. troop withdrawal. Many lawmakers expressed worry that the withdrawal may lead to revival of ISIS as well as Russian presence and influence in the area — in addition to the slaughter of many Kurds.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, publicly broke with Trump to call the U.S. relationship with the Kurds “a great alliance.”
“I’m sorry that we are where we are. I hope the vice-president and the secretary of state can somehow repair the damage,” McConnell said Wednesday.