The U.S. and Turkey agreed Thursday to a five-day cease-fire in the Turks' attacks on Kurdish fighters in northern Syria to allow the Kurds to withdraw to roughly 20 miles away from the Turkish border. The arrangement appeared to be a significant embrace of Turkey's position in the weeklong conflict.
After more than four hours of negotiations with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said the purpose of his high-level mission was to end the bloodshed caused by Turkey's invasion of Syria. He remained silent on whether the agreement amounted to a second abandonment of America's former Kurdish allies in the fight against the Islamic State.
Turkish troops and Turkish-backed Syrian fighters launched their offensive against Kurdish forces in northern Syria a week ago, two days after Trump suddenly announced he was withdrawing the U.S. from the area.
Pence and Secretary of State Mile Pompeo lauded the deal as a significant achievement, and Trump declared it "a great day for civilization."
But the agreement essentially gives the Turks what they had sought to achieve with their military operation in the first place. After the Kurdish forces are cleared from the safe zone, Turkey has committed to a permanent cease-fire but is under no obligation to withdraw its troops. In addition, the deal gives Turkey relief from sanctions the administration had imposed and threatened to impose since the invasion began, meaning there will be no penalty for the operation.
Erdogan had stated on Wednesday that he would be undeterred by the sanctions. He said the fighting would end only if Kurdish fighters abandoned their weapons and retreated from positions near the Turkish border.
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Kurdish response unclear
According to outlines of the plan announced by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, Turkey expects the YPG to hand its heavy weaponry and destroy its military positions as it withdraws.
But although Pence said the U.S. had already started the withdrawal process in coordination with Kurdish forces, it was not immediately clear whether they would comply.
Speaking to Saudi news station Al Arabiya, top Kurdish politician Aldar Xelil said he welcomed a halt to fighting in northern Syria with Turkey but the group would defend itself if subjected to an assault.
Before the talks, the Kurds indicated they would object to any agreement along the lines of what was announced by Pence. But Pence maintained that the U.S. had obtained "repeated assurances from them that they'll be moving out." Xelil said Turkish President Erdogan wants to push in 32 km (20 miles) deep into Syria, which the group has previously rejected.
The Kurdish leadership is not party to the agreement, and 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. Turkey, as well as the U.S. and European Union have designated the PKK a terrorist organization.
Another unknown quantity is the answer of the Syrian government, with which the Kurds made a strategic alliance following the Turkish invasion, after years of confrontation.
Statements from the Assad administration on Thursday night still termed Turkey's attempt at establishing a safe zone in northeast Syria as an "invasion."
"Erdogan is an occupier of our land and an aggressor in our country," Assad adviser Bouthaina Shaaban told Beirut-based news station Al Mayadeen.
Trouble at home
Trump's withdrawal of U.S. troops has been widely condemned, including by Republican officials not directly associated with his administration. 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.
Trump has denied that his action provided a "green light" for Turkey to move against the longtime U.S. battlefield partners or that he was opening the way for a revival of the Islamic State group and raising worldwide doubts about U.S. faithfulness to its allies.
The White House released a letter on Wednesday in which Trump warned Erdogan that the sanctions could destroy his economy and that the world "will look upon you forever as the devil if good things don't happen. Don't be a tough guy. Don't be a fool!"
On Wednesday, Trump also spoke dismissively of the crisis, declaring the U.S. has no stake in defending Kurdish fighters who died by the thousands as America's partners against Islamic State extremists. In fact, he suggested the Kurdish group might be a greater terror threat than IS, and he welcomed the efforts of Russia and the Syrian government to fill the void left after he ordered the removal of nearly all U.S. troops from Syria.
"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. Let them fight their own wars."
While Erdogan heard global condemnation for his invasion, he also faced renewed nationalistic fervor at home, and any pathway to de-escalation likely needed to avoid embarrassing him domestically.
Trump did place some sanctions on Turkey for the offensive. But as Pence flew to Turkey, the president undercut his delegation's negotiating stance, saying the U.S. had no business in the region — and not to worry about the Kurdish fighters.
"If Turkey goes onto Syria, that's between Turkey and Syria, it's not between Turkey and the United States," Trump said.
The worst decision of his presidency
Even Republicans bristled at his action. It was the worst decision of his presidency, said Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who meets often with the president and is one of his strongest and most important supporters in Congress.
"To those who think the Mideast doesn't matter to America, remember 9/11 — we had that same attitude on 9/10/2001," Graham said, moving to sponsor bipartisan legislation that would put sanctions on Turkey.
Graham and his co-sponsor from across the aisle, Chris Van Hollen from Maryland, were planning on pushing on with the bill, despite the ceasefire.
"Senators Van Hollen and Graham have spoken, and they agree on the need to move full steam ahead with their legislation," said Bridgett Frey, a spokeswoman for Senator Van Hollen.