Turkey agrees to pause Syria offensive to let Kurds withdraw

Smoke rises from targets inside Syria during bombardment by Turkish forces at Ras Al-Ein town, on Oct 17, 2019.
Smoke rises from targets inside Syria during bombardment by Turkish forces at Ras Al-Ein town, on Oct 17, 2019.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Gunfire, shelling continue around Syrian town even after deal hailed by Trump administration

ANKARA • Turkey agreed on Thursday to pause its offensive in Syria for five days to let Kurdish forces withdraw from a "safe zone" Ankara had sought to capture, in a deal hailed by the Trump administration and cast by Turkey as a complete victory.

Even so, shelling and gunfire still resounded around the north-east Syrian town of Ras al-Ain yesterday, a day after the announcement.

Machine-gun fire and shelling could be heard from the Turkish town of Ceylanpinar across the border from Ras al-Ain, and smoke rose from one part of the Syrian town.

The truce was announced about 13 hours earlier by US Vice-President Mike Pence after talks in Ankara with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It was praised by US President Donald Trump, who said it would save "millions of lives", while Turkey cast it as a complete victory.

If implemented, the deal would achieve all the main objectives Turkey announced when it launched its assault on Oct 9: Control of a strip of Syria more than 30km deep, with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) - once US allies in the years-long fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) - obliged to pull out.

Republican and Democratic senators accused Mr Trump of having betrayed the Kurdish allies who were vital in fighting ISIS militants, of brushing aside the humanitarian costs of Turkey's invasion and of being outwitted by Ankara.

Following talks between Mr Pence and Mr Erdogan, Mr Trump tweeted that there was "great news" out of Turkey, adding: "Thank you to Erdogan. Millions of lives will be saved!"

Mr Pence, after more than four hours of discussions at the presidential palace in Ankara, later announced: "Today, the United States and Turkey have agreed to a ceasefire in Syria.

"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," he said, referring to a Kurdish unit within the SDF.

 
 
 
 

"All military operations under Operation Peace Spring will be paused, and Operation Peace Spring will be halted entirely on completion of the withdrawal."

It was unclear what, if any, damage came from yesterday's shelling.

It was also unclear whether the Kurdish-led SDF would fully comply with the agreement, which would leave Turkish forces in charge of a swathe of territory that the Kurds once held with US military support.

SDF commander Mazloum Kobani told Kurdish broadcaster Ronahi TV that the group would accept the ceasefire agreement, but said it was limited to the border areas running between Ras al-Ain and the town of Tal Abyad.

The joint US-Turkish statement released after the talks said: "The safe zone will be primarily enforced by the Turkish Armed Forces."

It said Washington and Ankara would cooperate on handling ISIS fighters and family members held in prisons and camps, a major international concern.

Mr Pence said US sanctions imposed on Tuesday would be lifted once the ceasefire became permanent. But US senators said they would press ahead with legislation to impose sanctions on Turkey.

A Turkish official told Reuters that Ankara got "exactly what we wanted" from the talks.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu described the deal as a pause, solely to allow the Kurdish fighters to withdraw. They would be forced to give up their heavy weapons, and their positions would be destroyed, he said.

He declined to call the agreement a "ceasefire", saying ceasefires could be agreed only by legitimate sides, and not by a Kurdish militia that Turkey considers a terrorist group.

"When the terrorist elements completely leave the safe zone, we can stop the operation," he said.

While Mr Pence said Washington had already been in contact with the SDF, and that it was already pulling out, the Kurdish position was not clear.

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SDF commander Kobani said that the agreement was "just the beginning", and would not achieve Turkey's goals.

Mr Aldar Xelil, a leading Syrian Kurdish politician, said the Kurds would abide by the ceasefire, but would defend themselves.

There was more uncertainty around the flashpoint Syrian border town of Kobani.

Mr Pence said the deal provided for Turkey not to engage in military operations there, while Mr Cavusoglu said Turkey had given no commitments about Kobani.

US Special Representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey said the agreement covered central north-eastern Syria, adding that Turkey was in separate talks with the Russians and the Syrians about other parts of the region.

"We have a very (convoluted) situation with Russian, Syrian army, Turkish, American, SDF and some Daesh (ISIS) elements all floating around in a very wild way," he said.

REUTERS

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 19, 2019, with the headline 'Turkey agrees to pause Syria offensive to let Kurds withdraw'. Print Edition | Subscribe