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

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 17/10/2019 Annie Karni

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ANKARA, Turkey — Vice President Mike Pence said Thursday that Turkey had agreed to suspend its military operations in northeast Syria for five days while Syrian Kurdish fighters left the area, immediately raising questions about whether the agreement was a diplomatic breakthrough or a capitulation to the Turkish government.

Emerging from close to five hours of deliberations with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Pence said that the American delegation had achieved the cease-fire it had hoped to broker in the hastily organized trip to Ankara, the Turkish capital. Hailing the agreement as a diplomatic victory for President Trump, he called 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.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan wearing a suit and tie sitting at a table: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with US Vice President Mike Pence in Ankara on Thursday. © TURKISH PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVI/AFP via Getty Images Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with US Vice President Mike Pence in Ankara on Thursday. But Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, immediately countered that the agreement 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.”

He noted that the United States accepted the importance of the safe zone to protect Turkey’s legitimate security interests. “It is fully agreed that the safe zone will be under the control of the Turkish armed forces,” he said. “Giving a break does not mean to withdraw our forces,” he said. “We will go on being there.”

Cavusoglu also directly contradicted Pence’s announcement that Turkey had agreed to engage in no military action in Kobani, Syria.

“We did not make any promises about Kobani,” Cavusoglu said, adding that they would discuss Kobani with Russia going forward.

Turkish army tanks are transported on trucks in the outskirts of the town of Akcakale, in Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, at the border of Syria, Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019. © ASSOCIATED PRESS Turkish army tanks are transported on trucks in the outskirts of the town of Akcakale, in Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, at the border of Syria, Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019. 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 last Wednesday.

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

“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 US has a say in a place where we withdrew our soldiers.”

“The US is irrelevant here. The US has left,” Stein added.

The announcement also raised questions about whether the Kurds would even agree to be moved out of northern Syria.

Gallery: Tensions in Syria (Photo Services)


What was clear, however, was that even a pause in violence was enough of a carrot for Pence to bring home for the Trump administration to declare victory after bipartisan condemnation for one of the biggest self-created foreign policy crises of the Trump administration.

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.

On Thursday, Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, decried Trump’s decision to withdraw US forces from northern Syria, describing the move as ‘‘a bloodstain in the annals of American history.’’

Syrians, who are newly displaced by the Turkish military operation in northeastern Syria, talk on their mobile phones as they sit in a bus upon their arrival at the Bardarash camp, north of Mosul, Iraq, Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019. © ASSOCIATED PRESS Syrians, who are newly displaced by the Turkish military operation in northeastern Syria, talk on their mobile phones as they sit in a bus upon their arrival at the Bardarash camp, north of Mosul, Iraq, Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019. Romney’s denunciation of Trump’s decision came hours after Senate Republicans blocked a vote on a House-passed resolution condemning the military move.

His speech and the actions of several conservatives reflected the fracture in the GOP over the issue, with many Republicans opposing Trump’s move and others echoing his frustration with ‘‘endless war.’’

‘‘The cease-fire does not change the fact that America has abandoned an ally, adding insult to dishonor,’’ Romney said in a scathing floor speech, shortly after Pence’s announcement.

Democrats and a number of other Republicans also have denounced Trump’s move as an abandonment of US allies: The Syrian Kurdish militias that partnered with the US military to fight the Islamic State militant group, also known as ISIS.

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