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US and Turkey reach agreement to suspend military operation in Syria

Halt in fighting within five days would allow Kurdish fighters to withdraw from designated 'safe zone' along Turkish border
'The two countries reiterate their pledge to uphold human life, human rights, and the protection of religious and ethnic communities,' agreement says (Reuters)
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Ankara

US Vice President Mike Pence and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reached a deal to suspend Ankara's operation in northern Syria within the next five days to allow Kurdish forces to withdraw from a designated area along the border, a Turkish official told Middle East Eye.

Following a long meeting between top Turkish and American officials on Thursday, the two sides came to an agreement amid growing international and US opposition to the Turkish incursion into Syria.

Pence confirmed the agreement after the meeting ended. "Today the United States and Turkey have agreed to a ceasefire in Syria," he said.

The demarcation line of the so-called "safe zone" is to run roughly 20 miles south of the Turkish border, Pence said.

On Friday morning, despite the deal, the sound of shelling and gunfire could be heard coming from the town of Ras al-Ain, across the border from Turkey. 

Trump welcomed the agreement on Thursday, writing on Twitter: "Great news out of Turkey… Millions of lives will be saved."

Later on Thursday, Trump told reporters in Washington that he was "very happy" with the deal, saying that the agreement will prevent the loss of "millions and millions of lives", adding: "This is an amazing outcome."

The safe zone is to be primarily enforced by the Turkish military, and the two sides will increase their cooperation to implement the deal.

Once the military operation is suspended, Trump will lift the sanctions that he imposed on Turkey earlier this week.

The agreement also stipulates that the White House will work with Congress - which has been engaged in efforts to impose sanctions on Turkey - to highlight the progress of the deal.

The top Democrats in Congress, however, called the agreement a "sham", saying that it gave Turkey everything while taking no concessions from Ankara.

On Thursday, a spokesperson for Lindsey Graham said the Republican senator would not drop efforts to impose additional sanctions on Turkey.

'We got what we wanted'

The agreement stipulates that Kurdish militants, including the People's Protection Units (YPG), would have their heavy weapons collected and their fortifications and fighting positions disabled. 

"We got exactly what we wanted out of the meeting," a senior Turkish official told MEE.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu echoed the official's comment.

"We got what we wanted. This is not a ceasefire. We only halt our operations," he said.

The Turkish operation, dubbed Peace Spring, will be completely suspended once the YPG completes its withdrawal, Pence said.

He added that Ankara would commit to a "permanent ceasefire" when the agreement is fully implemented. 

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The US-backed, Kurdish-led Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) played a major role in defeating the Islamic State (IS) group. 

Ankara, however, views the YPG, which is a major faction in the SDF, as a threat to its national security.

Trump pulled US troops from northern Syria last week, effectively giving Turkey the green light to carry its military offensive against Syrian Kurds.

Trump's decision proved to be wildly unpopular at home, with politicians from both major parties rebuking him, prompting him earlier this week to call on Turkey to end the incursion and to impose economic sanctions on Ankara.

Joint statement

A joint statement outlining Thursday's agreement, composed of 13 points, starts by reaffirming the strong alliance between Washington and Ankara.

"The US and Turkey reaffirm their relationship as fellow members of NATO," it reads. "The US understands Turkey’s legitimate security concerns on Turkey’s southern border."

The pact also says that the US and Turkey will coordinate on anti-Islamic State efforts, including maintaining the security of detention facilities that house IS militants.

'The US understands Turkey’s legitimate security concerns on Turkey’s southern border'

- Joint US-Turkish statement

"The two countries reiterate their pledge to uphold human life, human rights, and the protection of religious and ethnic communities," it says.

The document states that Turkey has agreed to exercise "maximum care" to protect civilians in the safe zone.

"The two sides agreed on the continued importance and functionality of the safe zone in order to address the national security concerns of Turkey, to include the re-collection of YPG heavy weapons and the disablement of their fortifications and all other fighting positions," it says.

Questions remain

It remains unclear who will implement the deal in the absence of US troops, or whether the Syrian government, whose forces have been deployed to many border towns, will accept the agreement. 

Joe Macaron, a fellow at the Arab Center Washington DC, said the deal offers a "face-saving outcome" to Erdogan and Trump.

The announcement today is being portrayed as a victory. It is far from a victory

- Mitt Romney, US Senator

"However, this agreement is not binding for either Russia or the Kurdish fighters," Macaron told MEE in an email. 

"We are already seeing different interpretations of the agreement from the US, Turkish and Kurdish sides, including when it comes to the length of the 'safe zone' along the Syrian border that Kurdish fighters are supposed to retreat from in the next five days."

Mitt Romney, a Republican senator, also cast doubt over the viability of the deal.

"The announcement today is being portrayed as a victory. It is far from a victory," he said, adding that serious questions remain over Trump's decision to withdraw American soldiers from northern Syria.

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Wladimir van Wilgenburg, a political analyst specialising in Kurdish issues, said the SDF is open to a ceasefire, but certain territorial disputes could become a major issue in the implementation of the agreement.

"The SDF is accepting the ceasefire, but we have to see if they accept Turkish demands to take Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain without a fight," van Wilgenburg said.  

The Turkish army has already captured the town of Tal Abyad, but has yet to fully take control over Ras al-Ain, which has a mixed population of Kurds and Arabs, he said.

"So we will have to see. But in general, SDF prefers peace over fighting," van Wilgenburg, who recently co-authored a book titled Kurds of Northern Syria: Governance, Diversity and Conflicts, told MEE. 

- Additional reporting by MEE staff in Washington

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.