Turkey has agreed to a ceasefire in northern Syria between its forces and their allied rebels and U.S.-backed Syrian Kurds, Vice President Mike Pence announced Thursday.
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Pence met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan earlier on Thursday to push for the ceasefire.
“It will be a pause in military operation for 120 hours, while the United States facilitates the withdrawal of YPG (the People’s Protection Units) from the affected areas in the safe zone. And once that is completed, Turkey has agreed to a permanent ceasefire and the United States of America will work with Turkey — will work with nations around the world — to make sure peace and stability are the order of the day in this safe zone,” Pence said at a news conference.
Vice President Mike Pence speaks during a news conference, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo looks on, at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, Oct. 17, 2019.
Turkey considers these forces, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, to be terrorists, indistinguishable from Kurdish separatists in Turkey that Turkey and the U.S. both have designated as terrorists. The YPG constitutes the main fighting force of the SDF. But the United States has closely partnered with and armed the Syrian Kurds in the fight against the Islamic State; the Kurds have lost 11,000 troops in that battle.
“Our team is already working with YPG personnel in the safe zone for an orderly withdrawal outside the 20-mile mark and we’re going to go forward together to bring peace and security to this region, I’m very confident of that,” Pence added.
The United States said in a joint statement with Turkey that the sanctions it recently imposed on Turkish government ministries and officials would be lifted as soon as Turkey’s offensive came to a permanent end.
In Texas, following Pence’s announcement, President Donald Trump told reporters that Erdogan was “a hell of a leader” who “did the right thing.” Now that Turkey has agreed to cease fighting for five days, Trump said, “sanctions won’t be necessary.”
Trump said that he, himself, had taken “a lot of heat” for his approach to Turkey, which critics across the political spectrum said amounted to abandoning allies who had fought ISIS alongside the United States.
“This is a great day for civilization,” Trump tweeted earlier.
Erdogan had previously repeatedly rejected the idea of a ceasefire, saying his government would not negotiate with what it considers a terrorist organization.
The high-level diplomacy came one day after Trump dismissed concerns about the violent clashes: “That’s between Turkey and Syria, it’s not between Turkey and the United States, like a lot of stupid people would like us to, would like you to believe,” he said in the Oval Office Wednesday.
Presidential Press Service via AP, Pool
Vice President Mike Pence, left, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pose for photos before their talks at the presidential palace, in Ankara, Turkey, on Oct. 17, 2019.
Trump has come under withering criticism by Republicans and Democrats for withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria, after initially pulling back two attachments of troops in advance of Turkey’s operation against the Syrian Kurds.
(MORE: What you need to know about who’s fighting in Syria and what the US withdrawal means)
That was seen as giving a green light to Erdogan to attack the Kurds.
Trump denied Wednesday that he had given a green light, saying he could not have stopped Turkey: “There was never given a green light. They’ve been wanting to do that for years and, frankly, they’ve been fighting for many, many years.”
Delil Souleiman/AFP via Getty Images
Displaced people, fleeing from the countryside of the Syrian Kurdish town of Ras al-Ain along the border with Turkey, ride a motorcycle together along a road on the outskirts of the nearby town of Tal Tamr on Oct. 16, 2019.
Pence and Erdogan met in Turkey’s capital Ankara for one hour and 20 minutes — a one-on-one meeting that was originally scheduled to last just 10 minutes. In footage released by Turkish state media, Pence shook hands with the strongman president and said, “Thanks for seeing me.”
Pence was joined by U.S. special envoy for Syria Jim Jeffrey, a veteran diplomat who previously served as ambassador to Turkey and served as translator during the meeting.
Later, the full delegations met, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser Robert O’Brien from the U.S. side and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. No one spoke during a brief photo op at the start, even after one reporter asked whether they’d agreed on a ceasefire.
Vice President Mike Pence, poses for a photo before leaving the U.S. Ambassador’s residence in Ankara, Turkey, en route to the Presidential Palace for talks on the Kurds and Syria, on Oct. 17, 2019.
Trump has sent mixed signals on the operation, at times dismissing any U.S. concern over it, but then also penalizing Turkey with sanctions Monday on its defense, energy, and interior ministers and defense and energy ministries.
The day Turkey launched its offensive last week, Trump admonished Erdogan in a surreal personal letter in which he threatened to be “responsible for destroying the Turkish economy” and said his fellow leader should not be “a tough guy” or a “fool.” The letter was first reported by Fox News and later confirmed as accurate to ABC News by a senior administration official.
White House via Reuters
A letter from President Donald Trump to Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan, dated Oct. 9, 2019, warning Erdogan about Turkish military policy and the Kurdish people in Syria, after being released by the White House on Oct. 16, 2019.
(MORE: ‘Don’t be a tough guy’: President Trump sent threatening letter to Turkish President Erdogan on day of invasion)
But on Wednesday, just hours before Pence departed for Ankara — carrying out Trump’s directive to try to negotiate a ceasefire — Trump again said he did not think the United States should get involved. “It’s not our border,” he told reporters at the White House. “We shouldn’t be losing lives over it.”
Erdogan told reporters on Tuesday that he could not keep up with all the different messages from Trump: “When we take a look at Mr Trump’s Twitter posts, we can no longer follow them,” he said, according to Turkish media. “We cannot keep track.”
In this photo taken from the Turkish side of the border between Turkey and Syria, flames and smoke billow from a fire on a target in Ras al-Ayn, Syria, caused by shelling by Turkish forces, on Oct. 17, 2019.
What is clear is that Erdogan has a firm stance against any negotiations, demanding that the Syrian Kurdish forces first lay down their arms and vacate the area.
The back-and-forth made Pence and his delegation’s job difficult, according to critics — including Republicans.
“The statements by President Trump about Turkey’s invasion being of no concern to us also completely undercut Vice President Pence and Sec. Pompeo’s ability to end the conflict,” Sen. Lindsey Graham tweeted Wednesday.