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Thursday, December 12, 2019

Turkey agrees to pause fighting, but not to withdraw forces from Northern Syria

Emerging from close to five hours of talks after a hastily arranged trip to Ankara, the Turkish capital, Pence hailed the agreement as a diplomatic victory for President Donald Trump, calling it a “solution we believe will save lives.”

By: New York Times | New York Times | Updated: October 18, 2019 1:42:53 pm
syria turkey conflict, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, syria turkey tension, syria turkey ceasefire Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley departs a closed-door hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, along with Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) on Capitol Hill in Washington on Thursday. (The New York Times)

Written by Annie Karni, Lara Jakes and Patrick Kingsley

Vice President Mike Pence agreed Thursday to a deal with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that accepted a Turkish military presence in a broad part of northern Syria in exchange for the promise of a five-day cease-fire, completing an abrupt reversal of American policy in the Syrian conflict.

Emerging from close to five hours of talks after a hastily arranged trip to Ankara, the Turkish capital, Pence hailed the agreement as a diplomatic victory for President Donald Trump, calling it a “solution we believe will save lives.”

The agreement “ends the violence — which is what President Trump sent us here to do,” Pence said at a news conference at the ambassador’s residence.

Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, immediately contradicted the description of the agreement, saying it was not a cease-fire at all, but merely a “pause for our operation.” He added that “as a result of our president’s skillful leadership, we got what we wanted.”

The deal briefly halts a Turkish-led invasion of northern Syria that began Oct. 9, after Trump withdrew U.S. forces from the Turkish-Syrian border, allowing Turkish forces to enter a swath of Kurdish-held territory. Still, in many respects, the agreement is a triumph for Turkey, giving it most of what it had wanted and averting Trump’s threat of economic sanctions against the country.

Turkey sought to force a withdrawal from the border area of Syrian Kurdish fighters, whom the United States formerly supported but Turkey considers terrorists.

Since 2012, Kurdish forces had harnessed the chaos of the Syrian civil war to carve out an autonomous region along the border with Turkey, free of Syrian government control. They greatly expanded their territory by partnering with U.S. troops to force out Islamic State militants from the area.

The agreement now promises Turkey that those Kurdish forces will withdraw from that area without a fight, in addition to the United States accepting a Turkish-controlled “safe zone” and agreeing to lift Trump’s threat of painful economic sanctions on Turkey for its incursion.

“It is fully agreed that the safe zone will be under the control of the Turkish armed forces,” Cavusoglu said. “Giving a break does not mean to withdraw our forces,” he said. “We will go on being there.”

Though the announcement halts fighting for five days, and gave Pence an agreement to return home with, it was in practice less of a cease-fire deal than an acknowledgment of the United States’ rapid loss of influence in Syria since the Turkish invasion began.

In less than two weeks, the U.S.’s official position has reversed from one of tacit support for Syrian Kurdish control of northern Syria — to one of total deferral to Turkish territorial ambitions in the same area.

Having destroyed its main military base in northern Syria on Wednesday, the United States has few tools to enforce the provisions of the deal beyond economic sanctions.

“This seems to be a lot of smoke and mirrors,” said Aaron Stein, author of “Turkey’s New Foreign Policy,” and director of the Middle East program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “It’s all based on the fictional notion that the U.S. has a say in a place where we withdrew our soldiers.”

“The U.S. is irrelevant here, the U.S. has left,” Stein added.

The announcement also raised questions about whether the Kurdish fighters would even agree to be moved out of northern Syria. Pence told reporters that the United States was already working with Kurdish militia members, as well as Syrian defense forces to facilitate an “orderly withdrawal.” That process, he said, had “literally already begun.”

“This is an incredible outcome,” Trump said in Washington. Later, at a rally in Dallas, the president defended his approach to the conflict as “tough love.”

“Sometimes you have to let them fight,” he said, “like two kids in a lot.”

Analysts said it remains unclear how workable the deal will ultimately prove, given that most of the main actors in northern Syria — the Kurdish leadership and the Russian and Syrian governments — were not at the negotiating table.

Decisions relating to northern Syria are no longer “just about Turkey and the United States,” said Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, an Istanbul-based research group. “It’s also about Russia and the Syrian regime and the YPG,” an abbreviation for the main Kurdish militia in northern Syria.

On Thursday night, the militia’s commander, Mazloum Abdi, said his forces would abide by the cease-fire but would only leave the central stretch of the region Turkey seeks to control, not the sections of Kurdish-held land to its east and west.

“Nothing has been discussed for the other regions,” the general said in an interview with a local television station. “Our forces remain there.”

“The Turkish occupation will not continue in the current way,” he added.

Even if the Syrian Kurdish forces leave areas under attack by Turkish troops, one of the American negotiators acknowledged that there would be nothing to stop them from redeploying to other areas along the Syrian border that Turkey covets.

Those areas are now under the de facto jurisdiction of the Syrian regime and its Russian backers, whom the Kurdish leadership turned to for protection Sunday after U.S. troops evacuated the area and the Turkish troops advanced.

James F. Jeffrey, the State Department’s special envoy for Syria, said Syrian Kurdish fighters were consulted throughout the negotiations, including Thursday afternoon, and suggested that the loss of their territory was better than continued violence and bloodshed as Turkish troops advanced.

“There’s no doubt that the YPG wishes that they could stay in these areas,” Jeffrey told reporters traveling with him on the State Department’s plane as it flew out of Ankara. “It is our assessment that they have no military ability to hold onto these areas.”

He said Turkish officials “have no intention — no intention whatsoever,” of remaining in Syria once the Kurdish fighters had receded from the border territory that they had held after battling the Islamic State.

But Turkish troops already maintain a presence in other parts of northern Syria, where they show few signs of leaving, a fact that Jeffrey acknowledged.

Acknowledging Kurdish fighters on other parts of the Syrian border with Turkey, Jeffrey said the cessation only applied to the central area of the northeast, “because that’s where the Turks can do a cease-fire.”

While a pause in violence allowed the Trump administration to declare a diplomatic victory, it was not enough to allay the bipartisan condemnation of his policy reversal in Syria that jettisoned the Kurds as allies.

“Are we so weak and inept diplomatically that Turkey forced the hand of the United States? Turkey?” said Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah.

Critics portrayed the deal as Trump’s second humiliation by Erdogan in less than a day. Earlier Thursday, Erdogan’s administration told Turkish reporters that the Turkish president had thrown out a letter from Trump, making a mockery of his attempts to prevent the Turkish invasion.

“This deal could NEVER have been made 3 days ago,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “There needed to be some ‘tough’ love in order to get it done. Great for everybody. Proud of all!”

Trump was referring to the letter he sent to Erdogan, warning him in plain terms rarely used between heads of state, to not “be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!” The American delegation arrived in Ankara earlier Thursday amid reports that Erdogan had launched the invasion in part as a reaction to the letter.

The letter was dated Oct. 9, the same day that a Turkish military operation began against Syrian Kurdish fighters who had partnered with U.S. troops against the Islamic State.

“Let’s work out a good deal!” Trump wrote to Mr. Erdogan. “You don’t want to be responsible for slaughtering thousands of people, and I don’t want to be responsible for destroying the Turkish economy — and I will.”

As part of the agreement announced Thursday by Pence, the Trump administration also agreed not to impose any further sanctions on Turkey, and to remove the economic sanctions that were imposed this week once the “permanent cease-fire” took place.

It was not clear that Trump’s letter had the sobering effect on Erdogan that he had anticipated. Multiple news outlets reported on Thursday that the Turkish president put the letter “in a bin,” although aides did not respond when asked if he had literally thrown it away.

Leaving the Turkish capital with any agreement, however, was something of a best-case scenario for Pence and Pompeo, whose aides had lowered expectations ahead of the meeting.

Their task had been further complicated by Trump appearing to wash his hands of the region, saying on Wednesday that it “has nothing to do with us.”

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