Pence Says Turkey Will Pause Military Operations in Syria -- 6th update

Date : 10/17/2019 @ 9:41PM
Source : Dow Jones News

Pence Says Turkey Will Pause Military Operations in Syria -- 6th update

By Alex Leary and David Gauthier-Villars 

Turkey has agreed to suspend military activities in Syria for five days, and in return the U.S. will pull back on economic sanctions and work with Kurdish forces to withdraw from the area, Vice President Mike Pence said in Ankara following a day of negotiations.

Mr. Pence, who led more than four hours of talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday, said the U.S. was working with Kurdish forces on an orderly withdrawal.

"Today the United States and Turkey have agreed to a cease-fire in Syria, " Mr. Pence said, adding that Turkey would pause military operations for 120 hours while Kurdish forces withdraw from a "safe zone." Once that withdrawal is complete, the cease-fire will become permanent, he said.

While Mr. Pence called the move a cease-fire during a press conference in Ankara, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu shortly thereafter called the move a pause, saying "This is not a cease-fire."

Mr. Cavusoglu stressed that the pause was contingent upon Kurdish-led forces leaving the safe-zone area, the collection of heavy weapons and the destruction of fortifications. "Taking a pause doesn't mean that our soldiers will withdraw."

The two sides also disagreed on the future of the Syrian city of Kobane, which is under Kurdish control. Mr. Cavusoglu denied Mr. Pence's assertion that Turkey had agreed not to take action against the Kurdish stronghold.

"We will be there and we will continue to be there," Mr. Cavusoglu said, adding, "With today's negotiations, we've obtained what we wanted thanks to the adroit leadership of our president."

U.S. and Turkish officials said the agreement called for Turkey to control a 20-mile deep strip on the Syrian side of the border, but they didn't address how wide it would be, and whether it would encompass towns where the Russian army has moved to fill in the void created by departing U.S. troops.

"This is a very fragile process," said Metin Gurcan, a retired Turkish military officer, noting that Mr. Erdogan was due to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Russia on Tuesday.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said they had requested and agreed to the immediate cease-fire brokered by Turkey and the U.S. on all front lines extending from Tal Abyad to Ras al-Ain. The SDF said it would abide by the cease-fire, which began at 10 p.m., and called on Turkey to do the same.

Mazloum Abdi, commander of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, told Ronahi TV, a Kurdish television channel, that the SDF accepted the deal and will do what needs to be done to make it succeed. The agreement only covers the area between Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain, the area originally covered under the safe-zone agreement worked out between the U.S. and Turkey, and doesn't cover other areas in northern Syria, Mr. Abdi said, adding that those areas will need to be discussed later.

A commander of the Kurdish peoples' protection units known as the YPG earlier confirmed that Kurdish forces had received orders from SDF leadership to stop fighting.

"On our side we have stopped, but we are still holding our positions," he said. "Because you can't trust those sons of bitches."

The Assad regime didn't immediately react to the U.S.-Turkey deal. It has previously called Turkey's action in the country an aggression.

President Trump called Thursday's developments "an amazing outcome" and praised Mr. Erdogan, who he said would visit the White House in November.

Mr. Trump has been under expanding political pressure in the U.S. to roll back the Turkish assault on areas controlled by Kurds, who have been a key U.S. ally in the fight against Islamic State.

Two-thirds of House Republicans joined with Democrats on Wednesday in a vote denouncing Mr. Trump's decision to withdraw a small U.S. force from northeastern Syria, a move critics said gave Turkey a green light to move in.

A bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation that would impose harsh sanctions on Turkey on Thursday, though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has yet to say whether he would bring the measure to the floor for a vote.

Kevin Bishop, a spokesman for Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), one of the bill's sponsors, said sponsors plan to push ahead for passage regardless of whether fighting halts.

Mr. Pence and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in the Turkish capital on Thursday to press Mr. Erdogan to halt a cross-border offensive in northeastern Syria that has deepened a rift between the two North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies.

Turkey launched a military campaign last week to seize territory held by U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in Syria after the withdrawal of American troops from the region. Its forces have since captured more than 400 square miles of territory using heavy artillery and aerial bombardments despite global condemnation and threats of fresh U.S. sanctions.

Mr. Trump dispatched the delegation following a Monday phone call with Mr. Erdogan, who had ignored U.S. warnings over the military offensive.

The hastily arranged visit underscored rapid developments in the region and growing bipartisan alarm in Washington as Mr. Trump said the Turkish assault had "nothing to do with us" and describing the U.S.-allied Kurds as "not angels" only hours before the officials departed for Ankara.

Mr. Trump's national-security adviser, Robert O'Brien, arrived a day earlier and held advance talks with Mr. Cavusoglu.

The crisis began after Mr. Trump's Oct. 6 order to withdraw about 1,000 troops from northeastern Syria, contending he was keeping a campaign promise to get the U.S. out of protracted overseas engagements. He has also said he didn't want U.S. troops in the middle of a longstanding feud between Turkey and Kurdish fighters.

Ahead of Mr. Pence's trip to Ankara, the White House released a brief letter written by Mr. Trump to Mr. Erdogan in which the U.S. president implored his counterpart in colloquial language to be reasonable, urging him: "don't be a fool." The letter was sent on Oct. 9.

After reading Mr. Trump's letter, Mr. Erdogan threw it in a waste bin, Turkish daily newspaper Hurriyet reported, citing sources within the Turkish presidency. The president's response was to launch the offensive in northeastern Syria, the newspaper said.

Turkish media refrained from quoting excerpts of the letter, only referring to a document that lacked any diplomatic courtesy.

Mr. Trump has denied any responsibility for the unfolding chaos, which has, among other things, emboldened Russia to send soldiers to the area. Abandoned by the U.S., the Kurds, who have helped fight Islamic State terrorists, have turned to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for protection.

For Mr. Pence, the mission is among his most high profile and complicated, a sharp detour from what has been a recent focus on generating congressional support for passage of Mr. Trump's reworked trade accord with Mexico and Canada.

Mr. Trump had threatened that he was "fully prepared to swiftly destroy Turkey's economy." So far, Mr. Trump has authorized sanctions on Turkey's defense, interior and energy ministers, raised steel tariffs on Turkey and halted talks aimed at expanded trade.

Fighting that pits the Turkish military against the Kurdish-led militia has caused the deaths of 218 civilians, including 18 children on the Syrian side, according to an aid worker affiliated with the semiautonomous Kurdish region. Turkish officials said Wednesday that 19 civilians were killed by mortars shot from the Syrian side.

Earlier Thursday, the SDF, which Turkey views as a terrorist threat, said it suspects that banned weapons were used against its fighters in Ras al-Ain, a town on the Syrian side of the border with Turkey.

"We urge international organizations to send their teams to investigate some wounds sustained in attacks," SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said on Twitter.

A senior Turkish official rejected the allegation. "We are receiving information that the terrorist organization will use chemical weapons and try to blame our armed forces for it to create a negative perception about this," Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said. "It is a known fact by everyone that Turkey's armed forces do not possess chemical weapons in its inventory."

The SDF claim couldn't be independently verified. Most rights groups and nongovernmental organizations have left the area since the start of the Turkish offensive. Chemical weapons have previously been used in Syria's multisided war.

--Isabel Coles, Dion Nissenbaum, Vivian Salama and Raja Abdulrahim contributed to this article.

Write to Alex Leary at alex.leary@wsj.com and David Gauthier-Villars at David.Gauthier-Villars@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

October 17, 2019 17:26 ET (21:26 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2019 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.


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