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

TURKEY : Vice President Mike Pence agreed Thursday to a deal with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that accepted a Turkish military presence in a broad part of northern Syria in exchange for the promise of a five-day cease-fire, completing an abrupt reversal of American policy in the Syrian conflict.

Emerging from close to five hours of talks after a hastily arranged trip to Ankara, the Turkish capital, Pence hailed the agreement as a diplomatic victory for President Donald Trump, calling 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.

Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, immediately contradicted the description of the agreement, saying it 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.”

The deal briefly halts a Turkish-led invasion of northern Syria that began Oct. 9, after Trump withdrew U.S. forces from the Turkish-Syrian border, allowing Turkish forces to enter a swath of Kurdish-held territory. Still, in many respects, the agreement is a triumph for Turkey, giving it most of what it had wanted and averting Trump’s threat of economic sanctions against the country.

Turkey sought to force a withdrawal from the border area of Syrian Kurdish fighters, whom the United States formerly supported but Turkey considers terrorists.

Since 2012, Kurdish forces had harnessed the chaos of the Syrian civil war to carve out an autonomous region along the border with Turkey, free of Syrian government control. They greatly expanded their territory by partnering with U.S. troops to force out Islamic State militants from the area.

The agreement now promises Turkey that those Kurdish forces will withdraw from that area without a fight, in addition to the United States accepting a Turkish-controlled “safe zone” and agreeing to lift Trump’s threat of painful economic sanctions on Turkey for its incursion.

“It is fully agreed that the safe zone will be under the control of the Turkish armed forces,” Cavusoglu said. “Giving a break does not mean to withdraw our forces,” he said. “We will go on being there.”

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.

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

Having destroyed its main military base in northern Syria on Wednesday, the United States has few tools to enforce the provisions of the deal beyond economic sanctions.