Syria assault paused as Kurds withdraw

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Turkey agreed to pause its offensive in Syria for five days to let Kurdish forces withdraw from a “safe zone” Ankara sought to capture, a deal hailed by the Trump administration and cast by Turkey as a victory.

The truce was announced by US Vice President Mike Pence after talks in Ankara with Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan and praised by President Donald Trump, who said it would save “millions of lives”.

If implemented it would achieve the main objectives Turkey announced when it launched its assault on October 9: control of a strip of Syria more than 30 km deep, with the Kurdish militia, once US allies, obliged to pull out.

It is unclear if the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) would fully comply with the agreement, leaving Turkish forces in charge of a swathe of territory the Kurds once held with US military support.

SDF commander Mazloum Kobani told Ronahi TV the group would accept the ceasefire agreement with Turkey in northern Syria but said it was limited to the border areas running between Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad.

Republican and Democratic senators accused Trump of betraying the Kurdish allies vital in fighting Islamic State militants, of brushing aside the humanitarian costs of Turkey’s invasion and being outwitted by Ankara.

“The safe zone will be primarily enforced by Turkish Armed Forces,” a joint US-Turkish statement after the talks said.

US senators who criticised the Trump administration for preventing the Turkish assault in the first place said they would press ahead with legislation to impose sanctions against Turkey despite the ceasefire announcement.

A Turkish official told Reuters Ankara got “exactly what we wanted” from the talks. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu described it as a pause to allow Kurdish fighters to withdraw.

Kurdish fighters would be forced to give up heavy weapons and their positions would be destroyed, Cavusoglu said. He declined to call the agreement a “ceasefire”, saying ceasefires could be agreed only by legitimate sides and not by a Kurdish militia Turkey considers a terrorist group.

“When the terrorist elements leave the safe zone we can stop the operation,” Cavusoglu said.

Washington and Ankara will co-operate to handle Islamic State (IS) fighters and their families in prisons and camps, the joint statement said, addressing concerns the militant group might reconstitute and attack Western targets again.

UNCERTAINTY ABOUT KURDISH RESPONSE

Pence said Washington was in contact with the Kurdish-led SDF, which agreed to withdraw and were pulling out.

The Kurdish position was not clear. Speaking to Ronahi TV, SDF commander Kobani said the agreement is “just the beginning” and will not achieve Turkey’s goals.

Aldar Xelil, a leading Syrian Kurdish politician, told Al Arabiya television the Kurds would abide by the ceasefire but would defend themselves.

Pence said once the pause became permanent, Washington would go ahead with plans to withdraw its forces from northern Syria, which partnered with the Kurds to fight against Islamic State. There were no signs US forces had ceased withdrawal, a US official said.

Trump tweeted: “Great news out of Turkey”.

“Thank you to Erdogan,” Trump said. “Millions of lives will be saved!”

“Today the United States and Turkey agreed to a ceasefire in Syria,” Pence told a news conference after talks at the presidential palace in Ankara.

“The Turkish side will pause Operation Peace Spring in order to allow withdrawal of YPG forces from the safe zone for 120 hours,” Pence said. “All military operations under Operation Peace Spring will be paused and Operation Peace Spring will be halted entirely on completion of the withdrawal.”

The deal struck with Erdogan provides for Turkey not to engage in military operations in the flashpoint Syrian border town Kobani, Pence said. Cavusoglu said Turkey gave no commitment about Kobani.

US Special Representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey said the agreement covered central north-eastern Syria and Turkey was in separate talks with the Russians and the Syrians about other areas of the region.

“We have a convoluted situation with Russian, Syrian Army, Turkish, American, SDF and some Daesh (Islamic State) elements floating around in a wild way,” he told reporters as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew to Tel Aviv.

HUMANITARIAN CRISIS

Senator Mitt Romney, a Republican, said the agreement “is far from a victory” and demanded the administration explain what will happen to the Kurds, what will be the future US role in the region and why Turkey “will face no apparent consequences.”

“What President Trump agreed to is a capitulation to Turkey at the expense of our Kurdish allies,” Senator Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, said in a statement, saying “the agreement lets Turkey off the hook for slaughtering innocent civilians.”

The Turkish assault created a new humanitarian crisis in Syria with 200 000 civilians taking flight, a security alert over thousands of Islamic State fighters potentially abandoned in Kurdish jails and a political maelstrom at home for Trump.
The Turkish assault began on October 9 after Trump moved US troops after a phone call with Erdogan. Trump announced sanctions on Turkey on Monday, after the assault began, but critics said these were too little too late.

Pence said sanctions would be lifted once the ceasefire became permanent.

If successful, the deal could smooth over a rift between Washington and Turkey, the only Muslim NATO ally.

The US withdrawal also leaves US adversaries Russia and Iran in a stronger position in Syria. The Kurds responded to the US withdrawal by switching allegiance and inviting Syrian government forces, backed by Moscow and Tehran, into towns and cities they control.

“The US essentially agreed to everything Turkey was seeking: a green light to invade, the creation of a huge ‘safe zone’ Kurdish fighters have to leave and the end of Kurdish autonomy,” said Phil Gordon, an Obama administration official now at the Council on Foreign Relations.



“Deeply damaging to US credibility, not just because Trump betrayed the Kurds but because it again makes Trump look like a paper tiger: after all his threats to Turkey he gave it everything it wanted for almost nothing in return,” Gordon said.