US, Turkey Agree on Ceasefire in Syria as Kurd-Assad Alliance Blocks Turkish Offensive
A United States delegation led by Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo negotiated with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a five-day ceasefire in Syria to allow withdrawal of Kurdish forces, Pence said on Oct. 17. Turkey’s week-long military incursion in northern Syria, which it called “Operation Peace Spring,” was met with tough resistance from a new alliance between the local Kurdish forces and their previous enemy, the Russia-backed Syrian government.
“The Turkish side will pause Operation Peace Spring in order to allow for the withdrawal of YPG forces from the safe zone for 120 hours,” Pence told a news conference after more than four hours of talks at the presidential palace in Ankara.
“All military operations under Operation Peace Spring will be paused, and Operation Peace Spring will be halted entirely on completion of the withdrawal.”
“Great news out of Turkey,” President Donald Trump commented on Twitter, thanking Erdogan and adding that “Millions of lives will be saved!”
“This deal could NEVER have been made 3 days ago,” Trump said in a subsequent tweet. “There needed to be some ‘tough’ love in order to get it done. Great for everybody. Proud of all!”
Pence said U.S. forces in the region had already begun to facilitate a safe disengagement of YPG units.
The deal struck with Erdogan also provided for Turkey not to engage in military operations in the flashpoint Syrian border town of Kobani.
Armored SUVs carrying Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien entered the vast Turkish presidency complex in Ankara on Oct. 17.
The White House said Pence was greeted by his Turkish counterpart before entering a one-on-one meeting with Erdogan. A second meeting with the full delegations was to take place later that day.
The delegation was expected to press Erdogan with a threat of additional economic sanctions to stop the offensive.
Trump previously urged Erdogan to negotiate with General Mazlum Abdi, the leader of Syrian opposition forces led by the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG).
Mazlum is willing to negotiate and “make concessions that they would never have made in the past,” President Donald Trump said in a letter to Erdogan on Oct. 9, the day the offensive launched.
“History will look upon you favorably if you get this done the right and humane way. It 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!”
No such negotiations seem to be part of the ceasefire.
The negotiation may be a hard pill to swallow for Erdogan, since Ankara considers YPG to be an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a terrorist group that has waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey. Mazlum himself used to be a part of the PKK insurgency.
Ankara said it moved in to expel the YPG from an approximately 200-mile strip in northern Syria east of the Euphrates River and establish an 18-mile “safe zone” along the border for resettling millions of Syrians that fled to Turkey to escape the Syrian civil war.
By Oct. 17, over 670 “YPG/PKK terrorists” have been “neutralized,” implying the surrendered were killed or captured, Turkish state press bureau Anadolu Agency reported. Over 470 square miles of territory have been cleared of the YPG, Erdogan said the day before.
But the offensive seems to have met with tough resistance, based on information from the Rojava Information Center (RIC), a group of volunteers monitoring the situation in northern Syria.
The United States has backed the roughly 70,000-strong YPG since 2014 with training, light arms, and air support to fight the ISIS terrorist group. But the United States refused to provide heavy armaments due to YPG’s link to the PKK. As such, the YPG would have been easy pickings for Turkish artillery and air forces.
The Syrian military, led by President Bashar al-Assad and backed by Russia and Iran, had the resources to push the Turks away, but they lacked presence in the north where the YPG had fought off the government forces in the ongoing civil war and established an autonomous region.
Two days after Turkey announced the offensive was imminent, Trump announced a withdrawal of a few dozen U.S. troops stationed in northern Syria, making clear the United States has no interest in helping the YPG fight Turkey, a NATO member.
After Turkey started moving in, shelling Syrian territory along the border, the YPG quickly hammered out a military agreement with Assad, who immediately moved troops north with support of the Russian air force.
It seems Turkey mostly delegated the fighting on the ground to its Syrian proxies who call themselves Syrian National Army, to which Turkey provides artillery and air support.
The proxies tried to capture areas around Manbij and Ain Issa, towns about 20 miles from the border, but were repeatedly repelled by Assad’s forces and the YPG coalition (SDF), who now fight side-by-side, according to RIC researcher Robin Fleming.
“Backed up by Syrian aircraft the Syrian Army engaged in clashes between the SDF and Turkish proxy forces both in villages in the northwest between Kobane and Ain Issa and east of Ain Issa,” Fleming said in an Oct. 17 email. “The SDF and the Syrian Army established a string of joint positions around Ain Issa, equipped with tanks and artillery.”
The Syrian military, it appears, now holds the position in Kobane, while the Turkey proxy forces hold Jarabulus west of Kobane and Tell Abyad to the east.
“The SDF and the Syrian Army were able to regain at least ten villages north of Ain Issa that have been under the control of Turkish proxy forces coming from Tel Abyad,” Fleming said, referring to an unnamed local source.
“For three days there has been heavy war in the region around Ain Issa and Tel Abyad, especially since the Syrian Army joined,” an unnamed person in Ain Issa told RIC.
Turkey tried multiple times to cut off the road between Ain Issa and Kobane, but failed, the person said.
“Now the airspace is in the hands of Russia, that’s why there are all the time Russian and Syrian airplanes and surveillance aircraft over this region in the air. Once these airplanes came there were no Turkish airplanes anymore in this region.”
The Syrian military, it seems, was also able to end the fighting around Manbij on the west side of Euphrates.
“Peaceful situation, no airplanes,” an unnamed person told RIC on the night of Oct. 16. “The way between Kobane and Manbij is open and nothing is happening. West of Manbij there are still clashes between Turkish proxy forces and the Manbij Military Council because of attempts by Turkish proxy forces to get into the villages. There are also Russian airplanes flying. The Syrian Army forces are along the border, from Sacur until Erime.”
The Assad-YPG alliance prompted some media speculation about the future of the Kurdish autonomy. Fleming said, however, that so far the cooperation seems limited to military actions to protect the border.
“We spoke to the local administration in Ain Issa who informed us that the presence of the Syrian Army doesn’t have any impact on their work, which is continuing as before,” he said.
It remains to be seen, he noted, how the agreement will develop.
“All civil institutions are still in the hands of the Autonomous Administration,” he said. “Both the SDF and the Syrian army have fought together in Manbij. And the Syrian Army has moved to the border with the intention to protect it but it does not have any official presence in cities in North and East Syria.”
While ISIS has been stripped of its territory, its sleeper cells still conduct terrorist attacks in the region. Thousands of ISIS prisoners are held in the area too. Turkish shelling seemed to have particularly targeted detention facilities holding ISIS terrorists and their affiliates, left under YPG control upon the U.S. withdrawal.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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