Turkey has agreed to suspend its Syria offensive for five days and will end the assault if Kurdish-led forces withdraw from a safe zone along the border, US Vice President Mike Pence and Turkish officials said on Thursday.
The agreement for a 120-hour ceasefire to allow a Kurdish militia to pull out was hailed by US President Donald Trump as a “great day” for Turkey and the Kurdish population.
Kurdish forces will have to withdraw from an area that is 32 kilometers deep, which is expected to eventually become a “safe zone” that Turkey has sought for months, as part of the US-Turkey deal.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) chief Mazlum Abdi said they were “ready to abide by the ceasefire,” covering the area from Ras al-Ain to Tal Abyad.
The result will be welcomed by the international community after Turkey had vowed only a day before to press ahead with the cross-border operation, which had been facilitated by Trump’s withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria.
After a meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Pence told reporters in Ankara that Turkey’s operation “will be halted entirely on completion” of the pullout and following that, the US would withdraw recently imposed sanctions.
“Our commitment with Turkey is that we will work with the YPG members and… [SDF] to facilitate an orderly withdrawal in the next 120 hours,” Pence said. “Let me say that’s already begun.”
The offensive against Syrian Kurdish fighters who Turkey brands as terrorists, which began on October 9, had been widely condemned, with many European countries including Germany imposing arms embargoes.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu insisted to journalists in Ankara that Turkey was “suspending the operation, not halting it.”
“This is not a ceasefire. A ceasefire is reached between the two legitimate parties.”
Ankara considers Syrian Kurdish YPG militants, who make up the bulk of the SDF, to be an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – a group that has fought a bloody insurgency inside Turkey for 35 years.
The Turkish government had widespread support for its operation at home, though the YPG had been a major US ally for the fight against ISIS inside northern Syria.
‘Hell of a leader’
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said more than 300,000 civilians had been displaced within Syria since the start of the assault, calling it one of the largest upheavals since Syria’s civil war began in 2011.
The monitor said nearly 500 people have been killed including dozens of civilians, the majority on the Kurdish side.
The Erdogan-Pence meeting lasted about one hour and 20 minutes – longer than expected according to a US official – and they were later joined by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other officials for more talks.
The deal was “a great day for civilization,” Trump later said in Fort Worth, Texas, where he is to hold a reelection rally.
“I want to thank the Kurds, because they were incredibly happy with this solution,” he claimed. “This is a solution that really – well it saved their lives, frankly.”
Trump also praised Erdogan as “a friend of mine,” adding: “He’s a hell of a leader.”
Trump has come under heavy criticism that pulling out 1,000 troops – practically the entire US contingent in the region – had been a betrayal of Kurdish militants who bore the brunt of the fight against ISIS in recent years.
There had been confusion before Ankara launched the incursion over whether he had given Turkey the green light during a phone call between Erdogan and Trump on October 6.
He then tweeted a series of threats against Turkey and issued sanctions after almost complete opposition in Congress towards Ankara’s military action.
In a joint statement published after the talks, Turkey and the US said they were “determined to continue efforts to fight against [ISIS]” including “coordination on detention facilities and internally displaced persons from formerly [ISIS] -held areas.”
Erdogan wants to create a buffer zone stretching 30 kilometers from the border into Syrian territory.
He wants to destroy Kurdish hopes of an autonomous enclave that Turkey fears could serve as a launchpad for attacks on its soil, and to resettle some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees Ankara is hosting.
Erdogan will meet his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin Tuesday — when the five-day period will come to an end — in the Black Sea resort of Sochi as both sides seek to prevent a war between Turkey and Syria.
Earlier Thursday, a Russian delegation including Moscow’s special envoy on Syria, Alexander Lavrentyev, met with Turkish officials including Erdogan spokesman Ibrahim Kalin where developments in different parts of Syria were at the top of the agenda.