Ten days after President Donald Trump created the biggest foreign policy crisis of his tenure, precipitously pulling U.S. troops out of Syria and exposing allies to attack, he secured a temporary deal that handed Turkey’s president a victory he’d been seeking for years.
In a hastily arranged one-day trip to Ankara, Vice President Mike Pence announced an agreement with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to halt an offensive in northern Syria that saw Kurdish fighters come under bombardment after years of working alongside the U.S. to defeat Islamic State.
But doubts about the significance of the deal emerged immediately.
Kurdish leaders said that while they welcomed a pause in hostilities, they wouldn’t abide by Turkish occupation in northern Syria. And key Republican lawmakers savaged it as backpedaling following a rash decision to pull American forces out in the first place without a plan to deal with Islamic State or the vacuum left behind.
“It’s not a cease-fire,” said Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He said the agreement tells the Kurds that “You have one hundred and x number of hours to get out of here before we kill you.”
The lira jumped to its strongest level in almost two weeks while and Turkish stocks rallied Friday after the U.S. agreed not to impose any further sanctions on Turkey as part of the deal.
But the accord gave Trump some breathing room amid a cascade of crises in Washington, where House leaders continue to pursue an impeachment inquiry against him. Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney fueled a new uproar when he effectively acknowledged that Trump offered Ukraine a quid pro quo for military aid, then hours later denied it.
The Syria crisis only amplified those tensions, as a meeting with Democratic and Republican leaders at the White House on Wednesday erupted into finger-pointing and insults between Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Win for Erdogan
The deal — a five-day military pause that may lead to a longer term arrangement — also hands Erdogan a huge political win by enshrining his control of a 20-mile “safe zone” in northern Syria, demanding the retreat of Kurdish fighters his government considers terrorists and securing a promise that U.S. sanctions will be withdrawn.
The accord closely resembles what Erdogan proposed a day earlier, when he said Turkey would end its operation only after Kurdish militants withdraw from the secure zone Ankara wants to create. Syria and Russia have long opposed any permanent role for Turkey in northern Syria.
As part of the agreement, Pence said no additional U.S. sanctions would be imposed on Turkey. The lira jumped to a one-month high on the news.
Trump proclaimed the agreement a “great day for civilization,” hailing his own “unconventional” approach.
“Everyone can spin it as they need to — the Trump administration can say that their sanctions and the threat of ‘economic devastation’ worked to secure a cease-fire agreement,” said Dana Stroul, a Middle East expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Erdogan will claim that the Turkish incursion compelled the United States to get the YPG to disarm, remove fortifications, and redeploy from northeastern Syria — Turkey’s long-standing requests.”
Filling the Void
Lots of questions remain for northern Syria.
The void left by the sudden retreat of American troops was filled not just by Turkey, but by Syrian forces backed by Russia. As the U.S. steps back, Syria’s unresolved eight-year civil war continues with a wider battlefield that also includes al-Qaeda offshoots and Iranian-backed militias. Under Turkish fire, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces quickly aligned with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Assad’s forces this week re-entered the strategic border town of Kobani. Backed by American forces, Kurdish militias had won a hard-fought victory in Kobani over Islamic State during the Obama administration in what was seen as a turning point in the U.S. effort to destroy the terrorist group’s “caliphate.” Trump claims credit for the broader defeat of ISIS as one of his greatest achievements. But critics of his abrupt withdrawal this month say it was a betrayal of the Kurds.
Evelyn Farkas, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States who served at the Pentagon during the Obama administration, said Trump’s move was an unforced error, “an own goal with bloody moral consequences. And that is just devastating to not just U.S. power and influence but to Americans’ definition of who we are.”
Jim Jeffrey, the U.S. special envoy for the Syria conflict who was with Pence in Ankara, said it was inevitable that the Kurdish fighters who make up the bulk of the Syrian Democratic Forces would be asked to retreat.
“There’s no doubt that the YPG wishes that they could stay in these areas,” Jeffrey told reporters on Thursday. “It is our assessment that they have no military ability to hold onto these areas.”
A senior administration official briefing reporters said the U.S. was in touch with the leadership of the Kurdish forces throughout their negotiations with Turkey.
‘Far From a Victory’
The agreement appeared to mollify one key Republican critic of Trump’s move: South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, who had led efforts to sanction Turkey in recent days and has blasted Trump’s troop withdrawal.
“Sounds like we may have made real progress regarding a cease-fire and hopefully a sustainable solution that will prevent the reemergence of ISIS and the abandonment of our ally, the Kurds,” Graham tweeted.
Pelosi said the president’s policies showed that he’s “flailing.” And many key Republicans were unswayed.
“Any situation where the Turks have achieved the military objectives, which we did not want them to achieve, is not a good situation,” said Representative Liz Cheney.
Republican Senator Mitt Romney, a more frequent critic of the president, took a harsher line.
“The announcement today is being portrayed as a victory. It is far from a victory,” Romney said on the Senate floor. “At the heart of this matter is a central question of why these terms and assurances were not negotiated before the president consented to withdraw our troops.”
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