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On Thursday, a week after Trump decided to remove U.S. troops from Syria to clear the way for a Turkish military operation, Vice President Mike Pence announced that the U.S. and Turkey had agreed to a ceasefire in northeastern Syria. This announcement came after five hours of talks between Vice President Pence and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara. According to Pence, Turkey agreed to a five-day ceasefire that would allow Kurdish forces to withdraw from a 20-mile “safe zone” by the Turkish border to Kurdish-held territory. In exchange, the U.S. will remove all sanctions against Turkey and the YPG, the main Kurdish fighting force in Syria, will have to turn over its heavy weaponry.
Pence presented the agreement as a diplomatic victory for the U.S. claiming that it is a “solution we believe will save lives,” and that it “ends the violence—which is what President Trump sent us here to do.” Trump weighed in by tweeting, “I am proud of the United States for sticking by me in following a necessary, but somewhat unconventional path.” He added that it was “a great day for civilization.”
Despite celebration by the Trump administration, Jasmine El-Gamal, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, characterized the deal as “a huge win for the Turks.” El-Gamal explained that Erdogan “got affirmation from the U.S. that [his] concerns are legitimate. Even if the U.S. doesn’t agree with them, [Turkey] can package their actions as legitimate.” The deal also allows Turkey to avoid Trump’s threat of economic sanctions while ensuring that Kurdish forces will withdraw from the area without a fight. Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, seemed to agree that the deal was a victory for Turkey as he contradicted the Trump administration by saying, “We got what we wanted. This is not a ceasefire. We [will] only halt our operations.” He added that “It is fully agreed that the safe zone will be under the control of the Turkish Armed Forces… Giving a break does not mean to withdraw our forces.”
Soner Cagaptay, the head of the Turkish research program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, explained that the agreement could be “paving the way for a global settlement between Assad and Erdogan.” After the withdraw of U.S. troops left Syrian Kurds without a partner, Kurdish forces formed an alliance with Assad. This gave Assad permission to move into regions that U.S.-backed Kurdish forces retook from ISIS. Russian forces have also moved into areas deserted by U.S. troops. Cagaptay predicts that Assad may be able to use his new relationship with the Kurds as leverage with Turkey which would allow for a “complete Assad-Russia takeover” in Syria. This shift of power in Syria could have negative consequences for the Kurds and other civilians.
It is also unclear how effective the deal will be given that the Kurds were not represented in the negotiations. Pence claimed that he received “assurances from the YPG that they will agree to the ceasefire,” but the U.S. and the Kurds seem to have different understandings of the agreement. Mazloum Abdi, the commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces, said his forces would abide by the ceasefire but only in the central portion of the area Turkey seeks to control. Abdi said that a ceasefire in other Kurdish-held regions would have to be discussed further. These discrepancies in the Kurdish and Turkish understandings of the ceasefire could lead to further conflict in the eastern and western regions of the “safe zone”.
If the ceasefire does hold despite these misunderstandings, it could reduce some bloodshed as Kurdish forces flee the region. However, the agreement is only a partial attempt to fix the crisis caused by the abrupt withdrawal of U.S. troops from northeastern Syria. To find a long-term solution, it will be crucial to address the underlying tensions that led to the conflict between the Kurdish people and the Turkish government and acknowledge the thousands of civilians who were displaced or killed by Turkish forces over the past week.