Mike Pence, the vice president of the United States, said Washington and Ankara have agreed on a five-day ceasefire in Turkey’s attacks on Kurdish fighters in northeast Syria.
The agreement on Thursday followed negotiations between Pence and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the presidential palace in Ankara.
Pence said Ankara would pause its offensive, dubbed Operation Peace Spring, for 120 hours in order to allow the Kurdish Protection Units (YPG) to pull 30km back from the Turkey-Syria border.
Once the withdrawal is complete, “Operation Peace Spring will be halted entirely,” Pence told reporters.
The US government “has already been in contact” with the Kurdish forces and “we have already begun to facilitate their safe withdrawal from the nearly 20-mile-wide safe zone area, south of the Turkish border in Syria,” said Pence, who had been sent on a whirlwind mission to persuade Erdogan to halt the internationally condemned offensive.
Washington will impose no further sanctions on Turkey once the ceasefire is implemented, Pence said, adding that it would also withdraw existing sanctions once the Turkish military operation is completed.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu welcomed the deal at a separate news conference, but refused to call it a “ceasefire”. Ankara considers the YPG a “terrorist” group, and Cavusoglu said “a ceasefire is reached between the two legitimate parties.”
Meanwhile, Mazloum Abdi, the commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurdish-lead force spearheaded by the YPG spearheads, confirmed late on Thursday that his fighters will comply with the agreement.
“We will do whatever we can for the success of the ceasefire agreement,” he said on Kurdish TV.
Victory for Turkey
Turkey began its cross-border offensive into Syria last week, shortly after US President Donald Trump pulled back his country’s troops from parts of northern Syria, east of the Euphrates River. Ankara said it wants to create a “safe-zone” cleared of Kurdish fighters to facilitate the repatriation of some of the 3.6 million refugees it hosts on its soil.
The SDF was Washington’s main ground ally in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIL), and critics have accused Trump of abandoning the Kurds by pulling US forces from the region.
The agreement represented “exactly what we wanted” from talks with the US, a Turkish official told Reuters News Agency.
The Kurdish withdrawal effectively achieves the main objective of clearing Kurdish forces from the border area that motivated Ankara to launch the campaign in the first place. Under the agreement, after the Kurdish forces are cleared from the “safe zone”, Turkey has committed to a permanent ceasefire but is under no obligation to withdraw its troops from the country.
“The feeling here is that Turkey has already won. Turkey has won in this round of negotiations with the United States,” said Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr, reporting from the Turkish border town of Akcakale.
She added the YPG are “clearly at the losing end”.
The deal also strengthens Turkey’s hand, she said, in advance of Erdogan’s visit to Russia to meet with President Vladimir Putin, who has long advocated for Ankara to end its military presence in Syria.
Kurdish forces, after losing US allies, recently pivoted to an alliance with the Syrian government in a deal brokered by Russia.
“An important question here is – why should [the Kurds] listen to the US when they’ve already made a deal with the Russians and by extension the Syrian government? In some front lines in the northeast of Syria, they are side by side fighting with the Syrian army,” she said.
She noted that Pence and Cavusoglu were also at odds with at least one commitment under the newly reached deal, with the US vice president saying the deal included an agreement for Turkey “to engage in no military action against the community of Kobane”, the strategic border town that Turkish troops began advancing on in recent days.
But moments later, Cavusoglu said the agreement involved no such commitment.
The deal also did not stop US legislators from moving to impose sanctions against Turkey. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said he would move ahead with proposed sanctions legislation on Thursday night.
Trump, however, hailed the deal as “a great day for civilization”.
Speaking in Fort Worth, Texas, where he was set to hold a campaign rally, the president said that all sides benefitted from the agreement. “It’s a great day for Turkey. It’s a great day for the Kurds.”
On Twitter, Erdogan directly addressed Trump.
“Mr President, many more lives will be saved when we defeat terrorism, which is humanity’s arch enemy,” Erdogan wrote, adding: “I am confident that this joint effort will promote peace and stability in our region,” he added.