By Petr Svab
President Donald Trump announced on Oct. 23 that Turkey has agreed to a permanent ceasefire in northern Syria. The United States will thus lift sanctions imposed on Turkey in response to its two-week incursion into its southern neighbor’s territory.
“We’re achieving a much more peaceful and stable area between Turkey and Syria,” he said, though noting that “you would also define the word ‘permanent’ in that part of the world somewhat questionable, we all understand that.”
Turkey invaded northern Syria on Oct. 9 to drive away from the border the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG), a 70,000-strong military force that Ankara considers an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a terrorist group that has waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey. In a 2018 report, then-U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats called the YPG the “Syrian militia of the” PKK (pdf).
The United States, which has since 2014 supported the YPG’s fight against the ISIS terrorist group, only had several dozen troops in the border area. Trump announced he would withdraw them two days before the Turks moved in.
Turkey’s stated goal was to set up a 20-mile-wide and 250-mile-long strip east of the Euphrates River in northern Syria along the Turkish border as a “safe zone” to resettle 1 million to 2 million of the approximately 3.6 million Syrian refugees who fled to Turkey to escape the Syrian civil war.
Yet the YPG-led coalition, called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), responded by making a deal with their previous enemy, the Russian-backed Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, head of the ruling Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, to help defend the border.
Facing tough resistance from the Assad forces fighting alongside the SDF, Turkey was only able to capture some parts of the “safe zone” in a 60-mile strip between border towns Tell Abiad and Sari Kani, an area from which the YPG was already withdrawing as part of an Aug. 8 U.S.–Turkey agreement meant to hold off an imminent Turkish invasion, according to the Rojava Information Center (RIC), a group of volunteers monitoring the situation in northern Syria.
The incursion led to the escape of at least seven ISIS terrorists and up to several hundred ISIS-linked individuals, according to the RIC. Turkish artillery seemed to target the ISIS detention facilities which led to the escapes, RIC researcher Robin Fleming previously told The Epoch Times in an email.
The relatively small number of ISIS prisoners who escaped due to the incursion has been “largely recaptured,” Trump said.
Trump said on Oct. 16 that the Kurds probably allowed some ISIS prisoners to escape to “make a little bit stronger political impact.”
On Oct. 14, the United States imposed harsh sanctions on Turkey and on Oct. 17, a U.S. delegation led by Vice President Mike Pence brokered a deal with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to pause the invasion for five days to allow the YPG to withdraw.
Hours before the ceasefire expired, Turkey struck a deal with Russia affirming that the YPG has to withdraw from the entire “safe zone,” Syrian border guards will deploy to the area on Oct. 23, and six days later, Russian and Turkish forces will jointly start to patrol a six-mile-wide strip along the border in northeast Syria.
If the YPG forces didn’t retreat, Syrian border guards and Russian military police would have to fall back, said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. “Remaining Kurdish formations would then fall under the weight of the Turkish army.”
While the SDF has yet to respond to the deal, Trump said he spoke to SDF commander Gen. Mazlum Abdi and expects him to issue a statement.
“He was extremely thankful for what the United States has done,” Trump said.
The general assured him that ISIS prisoners remain secured, he said.
It’s now up to Turkey, Syria, and others in the region to prevent an ISIS resurgence, Trump said. “It’s their neighborhood. They have to maintain it, they have to take care of it.”
Abdi said on Oct. 23 that Trump had promised to maintain long-term support for the Kurdish-led forces, who have controlled large swaths of northeastern Syria.
During the night on Oct. 23, Turkey’s defense ministry said the United States had told Ankara the YPG had completed its withdrawal from the area of Turkey’s military offensive.
There was no need to initiate another operation outside the current area of operation at this stage, the ministry said, effectively ending the offensive.
Russian military police arrived in the strategic Syrian city of Kobani on Oct. 23.
Turkey, Syria Forced to Coordinate
While the Turkey–Russia deal addresses Turkey’s call for the YPG to be pushed back from the border, it also means Ankara will have to deepen its security coordination with Damascus after years of hostility between Erdogan and Assad.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Oct. 23 that Turkey had no direct contact with Assad’s regime, but “there could be contact at the intelligence level,” which he said was “natural.”
Three Turkish officials told Reuters this week that Ankara was already holding covert contacts with Damascus to avert direct conflict in northeast Syria.
Ankara may also have to moderate its own military ambitions in the region. Turkish security sources said Ankara was re-evaluating a plan to set up 12 observation posts in northeastern Syria in the wake of the deal.
That change reflects the fact that Turkey, which had aimed to be the dominant force in the “safe zone” area, will now have to share that territory with Assad and Putin, who have both said Turkish forces can’t remain in Syria in the long term.
“The most significant part of the Russian–Turkish agreement is the arrival of the Syrian border guard to the northeast, something both Damascus and Russia sought for a long time,” said Yury Barmin, a Middle East specialist at Moscow Policy Group.
“This also means de facto recognition of Assad by Erdogan.”
The autonomous civilian administration the Kurds established in northern Syria seems to remain unaffected by the SDF–Assad military alliance, according to the RIC.
‘Costly’ Intervention Avoided
Trump defended his decision to pull out of the region, saying helping the Kurds fight Turkey, a NATO member and U.S. ally, “would have required deploying tens of thousands of American troops.”
“We have avoided another costly military intervention that could have led to disastrous, far-reaching consequences,” Trump said. “Many thousands of people could have been killed.”
The Turkish incursion led to about 250,000 Syrians fleeing their homes, according to the RIC. By Oct. 16, the RIC documented more than 80 civilian deaths and more than 400 civilians severely wounded.
Trump acknowledged the severity of the conflict, but argued the current agreement couldn’t have been reached without some initial conflict.
He noted that the region has suffered violent conflicts for hundreds of years and the U.S. interventions in the Middle East, costing $8 trillion and thousands of American lives, left the region “less safe, less stable, and less secure.”
The United States should no longer “police the world” and should commit troops to battle “only when a vital national interest is at stake and when we have a clear objective, a plan for victory, and a path out of conflict,” he said.
About 1,000 U.S. troops have already started to withdraw from Syria and move to western Iraq, though they are only to stay there temporarily before going home, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Oct. 22. The United States already has more than 5,000 troops in Iraq on a counterterrorism mission.
Trump said some troops will stay in the region to protect its oil deposits. “We’ll be deciding what we’re going to do with it in the future,” he said.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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