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Syria cease-fire agreement lifts threat of U.S. sanctions while letting Turkey keep buffer zone

Vice President Pence said Oct. 17 the United States and Turkey had agreed to a five-day cease-fire in northern Syria to allow Kurdish fighters to withdraw. (Video: The Washington Post)

ISTANBUL — Turkey agreed Thursday to a cease-fire that would suspend its march into Syria and temporarily halt a week of vicious fighting with Kurdish forces, while allowing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government to carve out a long-coveted buffer zone far beyond its borders.

The agreement, announced by Vice President Pence after hours of negotiations, appeared to hand Turkey’s leader most of what he sought when his military launched an assault on northeastern Syria just over a week ago: the expulsion of Syrian Kurdish militias from the border and the removal of a U.S. threat to impose sanctions on Turkey’s vulnerable economy.

Pence said Turkey had agreed to pause its offensive for five days while the United States helped facilitate the withdrawal of ­Kurdish-led forces, called the ­Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), from a large swath of territory stretching from Turkey’s border nearly 20 miles south into Syria. After the completion of the Kurdish withdrawal, Turkey’s military operation, which began Oct. 9, would be “halted entirely,” Pence said.

Here's where chaos unfolded in northern Syria as Turkey launched an invasion following President Trump's Oct. 6 decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the area. (Video: The Washington Post)

The White House agreed to refrain from imposing any new economic sanctions on Turkey and to withdraw sanctions that were imposed earlier this week once “a permanent cease-fire was in effect,” Pence said.

Pence, who negotiated with the Turkish leader at the presidential palace in Ankara, portrayed the agreement as a hard-won victory and credited President Trump’s leadership and Turkey’s friendship for its success. The deal delivered Erdogan concessions he had been unable to win during years of negotiations with the United States and vindicated, in some way, his decision to pursue military action instead.

“It’s a great day for the United States, it’s a great day for Turkey,” Trump told reporters in Texas after Pence’s announcement. “A great day for the Kurds, it’s a great day for civilization,” he added.

Vice President Pence met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara Oct.17 to persuade him to case the military offensive on northeast Syria. (Video: The Washington Post)

Mazloum Kobane Abdi, the commander of the SDF, said in an interview on a Kurdish television channel that “we accepted this agreement, and we will do whatever it takes to make it work.” But the text of the agreement was “just the beginning,” he said, adding that “the Turkish occupation will not continue.”

Pence’s whirlwind trip to Turkey came just a week after the start of a military operation that had prompted a hasty withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, led to dire warnings about the resurgence of the Islamic State militant group and abruptly caused a humanitarian crisis. Tens of thousands of people were uprooted from their homes. Dozens were killed in battles, on both sides of the border.

The Trump administration was criticized, even by some of its Republican allies, for abandoning the Syrian Kurdish militias, which partnered with the U.S. military to fight the Islamic State. Trump’s erratic statements about the conflict seemed to make matters worse: On Wednesday, he distanced himself from the conflict altogether, saying the fight between Turkey and the Kurds was “over land that has nothing to do with us.”

As Pence met with Erdogan on Thursday, the two men refused to smile, even a little, as their meeting got underway, as if to communicate failure before their negotiation had begun.

But afterward, a Turkish official briefed by participants in the talks said the Turkish side was surprised and relieved at how easy the negotiations were. “We got everything we wanted,” said the official, an adviser to the Foreign Ministry who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomacy.

Irritated by White House threats over the past week, Erdogan had prepared for a confrontational meeting, but the mood softened when it became clear the U.S. officials were asking only for what the Turks regarded as token concessions. In return for a brief pause in fighting, there would be no U.S. sanctions and no requirement for a Turkish withdrawal.

The request for a temporary cease-fire seemed to be “face-saving, for the U.S. side,” the official said. “It was as easy a negotiation as we’ve ever had,” the official said.

The agreement — aimed at separating hardened foes in a volatile area of Syria — faces obvious obstacles. The text raised a variety of pressing questions, including whether the combatants would honor their commitments.

The hasty U.S. pullback from Syria is a searing moment in America’s withdrawal from the Middle East

But while it averted, at least temporarily, the most serious dispute between Turkey and the United States in years, the agreement faced immediate criticism, including from U.S. lawmakers who earlier in the day had introduced sanctions legislation on their own.

Trump’s actions in Syria had infuriated Capitol Hill, where Democrats and Republicans in the House voted earlier this week in large numbers to rebuke the White House for the troop withdrawal. On Thursday, some of Trump’s most vocal critics on Syria met the news of the cease-fire with open skepticism.

In a floor speech, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) pressed the administration to explain the United States’ future role in the region, the fate of the Kurds and why, in Romney’s view, Turkey will face no consequences after its incursion into Syria

“The announcement today is being portrayed as a victory. It is far from a victory,” Romney said. “Serious questions remain about how the decision was reached precipitously to withdraw from Syria and why that decision was reached.”

Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), a co-sponsor of the bipartisan legislation introduced by Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), called the agreement “a capitulation to Turkey at the expense of our Kurdish allies.”

“The agreement lets Turkey off the hook for slaughtering innocent civilians and the Kurdish troops who fought alongside American soldiers against ISIS,” an acronym for the Islamic State, Hassan said in a statement. “Moreover, it does nothing to recapture the hundreds of ISIS soldiers who have already escaped from Kurdish-held prisons.”

Spokesmen for Graham and Van Hollen said they would continue to press the sanctions legislation.

Robert Malley, who served as a senior White House official during the Obama administration and is now president of the International Crisis Group, described the agreement as “a capitulation dressed up as a win.”

He said the Trump administration’s announcement validated the Turkish objective in Syria, “putting a gloss on it and claiming it was a deal reached through negotiations.” Malley said the terms appeared so ambiguous that they made possible renewed violence between Turkey and the Kurds.

The cease-fire agreement does not mention any Turkish withdrawal from Syria, where Turkish forces and their Syrian rebel allies have moved about 20 miles across the border over a broad width of territory. Although it says a “safe zone” will be established, the agreement also notes that Turkey’s military will take the lead in patrolling it.

Turkey has described the offensive as a counterterrorism operation directed at militants affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has fought an insurgency inside Turkey for decades.

Just weeks before the incursion, Turkey and the United States had agreed after months of negotiations to jointly patrol a zone that would extend no farther than 8.6 miles into Syria. Turkey’s unhappiness with that agreement, both in terms of the amount of Syrian territory it covered and the extent of Turkish control, was one precipitating factor in the decision to invade.

The deal reached Thursday also does not address Turkish-backed Syrian militias, which have been the vanguard of the invasion. U.S. officials consider those fighters to be extremists, and they have been held responsible by international human rights organizations for numerous violations since they entered Syria, including the extrajudicial killing of Kurdish fighters and civilians. It remained unclear whether Turkey had agreed to withdraw those militias or would be able to do so.

Turkey — where nearly 4 million Syrians have sought refuge during eight years of civil war in their homeland — has also said it intends to resettle 1 million to 2 million Syrian refugees in the buffer zone.

International law prohibits returning refugees to their native land without their permission, and it allows the initial return only of those who originally came from that area. U.S. officials have said that those who have fled over the years from the border region, both Kurds and non-Kurds, amount only to several hundred thousand.

DeYoung and Kim reported from Washington. Sarah Dadouch and Asser Khatab in Beirut and Colby Itkowitz, Missy Ryan, Joby Warrick and Carol Morello in Washington contributed to this report.

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