Turkey has agreed on Thursday a ceasefire that should halt its operation in Syria and temporarily halt violent fighting with Kurdish forces that have lasted a week. The deal also allows the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to create a coveted security zone far beyond his country's borders.
The deal, announced by US Vice President Mike Pence after hours of talks, seems to give Turkey's leader almost everything he was after when his military launched an attack on northeastern Syria just over a week ago: the expulsion of militias Syrian Kurds from the border and the withdrawal of the US threat to impose sanctions on Turkey's vulnerable economy.
Pence said Turkey agreed to stop its offensive for five days. During this period, the United States should help with the withdrawal of Kurdish-led forces called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDS) from a large swath of territory stretching from the Turkish border to about 30 kilometers south inland. from Syria. Upon completion of the Kurdish withdrawal, Turkey's military operation, which began on October 9, would be "totally halted," Pence said.
The White House has agreed to refrain from imposing new economic sanctions on Turkey and withdrawing those imposed earlier this week as soon as a "permanent ceasefire is in place," Pence said.
Pence, who negotiated with the Turkish leader in Ankara's presidential palace, described the deal as a tough battle won and credited President Donald Trump's leadership and friendship with Turkey for its success. The deal gave concessions to Erdogan that he had failed to achieve in years of negotiations with the United States and somehow justified his decision to launch military action.
"This is a great day for the United States, it's a great day for Turkey," Trump told reporters after Pence's announcement. "It's a great day for the Kurds, it's a great day for civilization," he added.
Mazloum Kobane Abdi, commander of the SDS, said in an interview with a Kurdish television channel that "we accept this agreement and we will do whatever is necessary to make it work." But the text of the deal was "just the beginning," he said, adding that "the Turkish occupation will not continue."
"We got everything we wanted"
Pence's turbulent trip to Turkey came just a week after the start of the military operation that triggered a hasty withdrawal of US troops from Syria, raised fears about the resurgence of the militant Islamic State group and suddenly caused a humanitarian crisis. Tens of thousands of people were torn from their homes. Dozens of people were killed in clashes on both sides of the border.
The Trump administration has been criticized, even by some of its Republican allies, for abandoning the Kurdish Syrian militias, which have joined the US military to fight the Islamic State. Trump's rash statements about the conflict seemed to make things worse: on Wednesday, he completely distanced himself from the conflict, saying that the struggle between Turkey and the Kurds was "for land that has nothing to do with us."
When Pence met with Erdogan on Thursday, the two refused to smile as the meeting began, as if communicating failure before negotiations began. But later, a Turkish official with information from people who participated in the negotiation said that the Turkish side was surprised and relieved at the ease of negotiations. "We got everything we wanted," said the official, a foreign ministry advisor who asked for anonymity.
Annoyed by threats from the White House during the week, Erdogan had prepared for a conflicted meeting, but the mood softened when it became clear that US authorities were asking only for what the Turks were symbolic concessions. In exchange for a brief pause in the fighting, there would be no US sanctions or Turkish withdrawal requirements.
The temporary ceasefire request was apparently intended to "make the US do well," the official said. "It was the easiest negotiation we ever had," said the advisor.
Obstacles and criticism
The deal – aimed at separating tough enemies in a volatile area of Syria – faces obvious obstacles. The text raised a variety of pressing issues, including whether combatants would honor their commitments.
But while avoiding, at least temporarily, the most serious dispute between Turkey and the United States in years, the deal met with immediate criticism, including from US lawmakers who earlier in the day had proposed sanctions on their own.
Trump's actions in Syria infuriated the US Congress, where Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives voted in large numbers earlier this week to reprimand the White House for withdrawing troops. On Thursday, some of the biggest critics of Trump's actions in Syria received news of the ceasefire with skepticism.
In a plenary speech, Republican Senator Mitt Romney urged the government to explain the future role of the United States in the region, the fate of the Kurds, and why, in Romney's view, Turkey will face no consequences after its foray into Syria. "Today's announcement is being portrayed as a victory. This is far from a victory," Romney said. "Serious questions remain as to why the decision to withdraw from Syria was taken and why it was taken so hastily."
"The deal does not punish Turkey for killing innocent civilians and Kurdish soldiers who fought alongside US soldiers against the Islamic State," Democratic Senator Maggie Hassan said in a statement. "Moreover, (the deal) does nothing to recover the hundreds of Islamic State soldiers who have already escaped from Kurdish prisons."
The ceasefire agreement does not mention a Turkish withdrawal from Syria, where Turkish forces and their Syrian rebel allies have moved about 30 kilometers across the border over a wide range of territory. While the deal says a "safe zone" will be established, it also indicates that the Turkish military will take the lead in patrolling.
Turkey described the offensive as a counterterrorism operation aimed at militants affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which has been promoting an insurgency within Turkey for decades.
A few weeks before the raid, Turkey and the United States agreed, after months of negotiations, to jointly patrol an area that would not extend more than 14 kilometers in Syria. Turkey's dissatisfaction with this agreement, both in terms of the amount of Syrian territory it covered and the extent of Turkish control, accelerated the decision to invade.
The deal reached on Thursday also does not deal with the Turkish-backed Syrian militias, who were at the forefront of the invasion. US authorities consider these extremist fighters to have been accused by international human rights organizations of numerous violations since they entered Syria, including the extrajudicial killings of Kurdish fighters and civilians. It is not yet clear whether Turkey has agreed to withdraw these militias or even if that would be possible.
Turkey – where nearly 4 million Syrians sought refuge during the eight years of civil war in their homeland – has also said it intends to relocate 1 to 2 million Syrian refugees in the security zone.
International law prohibits the return of refugees to their homeland without the permission of the country, and allows the initial return only of those who originally came from that area. US officials said those who fled from this border region, Kurdish or non-Kurdish, amount to only hundreds of thousands.