President Trump is trumpeting the agreed ceasefire on the Turkey-Syria border as a “great day for civilization” that would save “millions of lives.” But the Turks say it will give them everything they want from their Syrian offensive — and it hasn’t even stopped their deadly onslaught.
Just hours after the U.S.-brokered agreement was supposed to impose a 120-hour ceasefire, shelling and artillery fire was reported around the Kurdish-held town of Ras al-Ain, one of the key targets of the nine-day-old Turkish offensive to push the Kurds out of northern Syria. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said it lost five fighters amid attacks from the Turkish military and its proxy militias, which struck civilian areas including a hospital.
Despite his efforts to paint the deal as a triumph of diplomacy, Trump has faced blistering criticism at home and abroad over the agreement. Critics say it’s a capitulation to Ankara that renders the U.S.’ abandonment of the Kurds virtually complete, while simultaneously ceding five years of strategic influence in the conflict to rival Russia.
Under the 13-point deal, announced following a meeting with Vice President Mike Pence and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, Turkish troops agreed to halt their assault for 120 hours, while Kurdish forces would withdraw from a “safe zone” along the border, surrendering their heavy weaponry and having their positions destroyed.
In return, the U.S. would agree not to pursue heavy economic sanctions against Turkey, and Turkey would declare its mission over.
Observers say that that would be only natural, because if realized, the deal would effectively deliver Turkey victory in its operation to drive back Kurdish forces from its border — while allowing Trump to attempt to sell the outcome as a political win to his critics at home.
But despite Trump’s depiction, declaring that “millions of lives will be saved” by the agreement, many lawmakers weren’t buying it.
“This isn't a ceasefire — it's a total capitulation to Turkey and the capstone of our abandonment of the Kurds,” tweeted Sen. Chris Murphy.
“Don't pay attention to the headline — read the actual agreement. It's effectively surrender.”
While the ceasefire might tamp down some of the violence, it was unlikely to draw a conclusive halt to the offensive, say critics, as the Turks and Kurds remain in apparent disagreement over the critical question of the scope of the Kurdish withdrawal.
While the document refers to a ceasefire in a “safe zone,” the size of that area remains under dispute, Ege Seckin, principal analyst at IHS Markit Country Risk, told VICE News.
“The deal does not explicitly state whether the safe zone in question covers the current area of Turkish military presence — the 120-kilometer stretch between Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain — or the full extent of the Turkey-Syria border controlled by the YPG,” he said.
SDF commander Mazloum Kobani told a Kurdish broadcaster late Thursday his forces agreed to the ceasefire, but that it only applied to the central stretch between stretch between Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain, not the Kurdish-held land to its east and west.
“Nothing has been discussed for the other regions,” he said. “Our forces remain there.”
Kurdish political leader Saleh Muslim also said that he welcomed the ceasefire, but continued to reject a Turkish occupation of the region.
“Ceasefire is one thing, and surrender is another thing, and we are ready to defend ourselves. We will not accept the occupation of northern Syria,” he told local television.
Turkey has insisted the agreement isn’t even a ceasefire, but a “pause” in its offensive, as it doesn’t consider the Kurds a legitimate negotiating partner but a terrorist group.
Further complicating the picture is that the Syrian government and its Russian backers — who are now de facto in control of Kurdish-held regions in the north, following a deal last week between the Kurds and the regime last week — were not a party to the agreement.
Seckin said that, given the problems evident already, the deal appeared destined to break down. He said the Kurds were highly unlikely to surrender their heavy weaponry to the Turks, which would likely lead to a continuation of the Turkish offensive.
He said Trump would then be able to blame the Kurds for the ongoing Turkish onslaught, helping to mitigate the widespread backlash he is facing from Congress over his decision to withdraw troops from the region, effectively greenlighting the Turkish assault.
Seckin said that following the U.S. withdrawal, the Kurds’ fate remained in the hands of the remaining major powerbroker in the conflict, Russia – and the final extent of the Turkish offensive was likely to be determined during Erdogan’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the end of the planned ceasefire, on Oct. 22.
“Putin will call the shots going forward, and Erdogan will likely lobby Putin to enforce a full surrender of the SDF and its breakup,” he said.
If Erdogan was grateful for the favorable deal, he wasn’t showing it Friday. When asked in a news conference about an extraordinary Oct. 9 letter from Trump in which the U.S. leader warned him not to be a “fool,” a “tough guy” or a “devil” by invading Syria, Erdogan said he wouldn’t forget the slight.
Describing the letter as out of line with political and diplomatic courtesy, Erdogan said: “It is not right for us to forget it.”
“I want you to know that we will do what is required about this issue when the right time comes.”
Cover: Shortly after the Turkish operation inside Syria had started, local residents cheer and applaud as a convoy of Turkish forces vehicles is driven through the town of Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, at the border between Turkey and Syria, Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)