ANKARA, Turkey - The U.S. and Turkey agreed Thursday to a cease-fire in the Turks' deadly attacks on Kurdish fighters in northern Syria, requiring the Kurds to vacate the area in an arrangement that largely solidifies Turkey's position and aims in the weeklong conflict. The deal includes a conditional halt to American economic sanctions.
After negotiations with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence hailed the five-day cease-fire as the way to end the bloodshed caused by Turkey's invasion of Syria. He remained silent on whether it amounted to a second abandonment of America's former Kurdish allies in the fight against the Islamic State group.
Turkish troops and Turkish-backed Syrian fighters launched their offensive against Kurdish forces in northern Syria a week ago, two days after President Donald Trump suddenly announced he was withdrawing the U.S. military from the area. Trump was widely criticized for turning on the Kurds, who had taken heavy casualties as partners with the U.S. in fighting IS extremists since 2016.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the United States had accepted the idea of a "safe zone" long pushed by Turkey, and he insisted Turkish armed forces will control the zone.
The commander of Kurdish-led forces in Syria, Mazloum Abdi, told Kurdish TV, "We will do whatever we can for the success of the cease-fire agreement." But one Kurdish official, Razan Hiddo, declared that Kurdish people would refuse to live under Turkish occupation.
Trump had no reservations, hailing "a great day for civilization."
"Everybody agreed to things that three days ago they would have never agreed to," he told reporters. "That includes the Kurds. The Kurds are now much more inclined to do what has to be done. Turkey is much more inclined to do what has to be done."
It was not clear whether the deal announced by Pence means the U.S. military will shift gears and play a role in enabling or enforcing the cease-fire. Pence said the U.S. would "facilitate" the Kurds' pullout, but he did not say if that would include the use of American troops.
The Pentagon had no immediate comment.
As Pence was speaking in Ankara, U.S. troops were continuing to board military aircraft leaving northern Syria. Officials said a couple of hundred had already departed, with hundreds more consolidated at a few bases waiting to move out.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Trump confidant who has criticized the president's pullout, said he thinks U.S. troops will be needed as part of an effort to implement and enforce a halt to the fighting. "There's just no way around it," he said. "We need to maintain control of the skies" and work with the Kurds.
In contrast with Pence's description of a limited safe zone, the agreement would effectively create a zone of control patrolled by the Turkish military that Ankara wants to stretch for the entire border from the Euphrates River to the Iraqi border, though the agreement did not define the extent of the zone. Turkish forces currently control about a quarter of that length, captured in the past nine days.
The rest is held by the Kurdish-led forces or by the Syrian government military, backed by Russia, which the Kurds invited to move in to shield them from the Turks. None of those parties has much reason to let Turkish forces into the areas.
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.
In fact, Turkey's foreign minister rejected the word "cease-fire," saying that would be possible only with a legitimate second party. He suggested a "pause" in fighting instead.
Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who took part in the negotiations, lauded the deal as a significant achievement.
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 increase, meaning there will be no penalty for the operation.
Brett McGurk, the former civilian head of the administration's U.S.-led counter-IS campaign, wrote on Twitter that Thursday's deal was a gift to the Turks.
"The US just ratified Turkey's plan to effectively extend its border 30km into Syria with no ability to meaningfully influence facts on the ground," he wrote, adding that the arrangement was "non-implementable."
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.
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."
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, new Russian influence in the region and increased 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."
The withdrawal was the worst decision of his presidency, Republican Sen. Graham said on Wednesday.
"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.
While Erdogan, too, 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.
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