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US says Turkey agrees to halt Syria assault

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Via Financial Times

Turkey has agreed to halt its week-old military incursion in Syria in exchange for a withdrawal of Kurdish forces from a “safe zone” in a swath of the country’s north east, US vice-president Mike Pence announced during a visit to Ankara.

President Donald Trump claimed on Twitter that “[m]illions of lives will be saved” by the suspension of hostilities; Mr Pence, who held nearly five hours of meetings with Turkish leaders, said Ankara would follow the initial five-day halt with a permanent ceasefire once the US-allied Kurdish forces withdrew from the border region.

The US vice-president said the Trump administration would not impose any more sanctions on Turkey, and that it would remove recently imposed sanctions once a permanent ceasefire was in place.

“I just want to thank and congratulate . . . President Erdogan,” Mr Trump told reporters during a visit to Texas. “He’s a friend of mine and I’m glad we didn’t have a problem because frankly, he’s a hell of a leader. And he’s a tough man. He’s a strong man. And he did the right thing and I really appreciate it and I will appreciate it in the future.”

Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, disputed the use of the term “ceasefire” — which he said could only happen between two “legitimate parties” rather than with Kurdish militia, viewed by Turkey as terrorists. But he said Turkey would end its operation in northern Syrian after the withdrawal of the Kurdish forces, who have been the target of Turkey’s military assault.

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In what appeared to be a significant victory for Mr Erdogan, a joint statement published by the two sides said the Turkish armed forces will control a 32km “safe zone” that will be cleared of armed groups, fulfilling a long-held Turkish demand. The Turkish military will be responsible for ensuring the “safety and wellbeing” of all those who live in the sector, the statement said — a move that is likely to cause alarm among the many of the residents of the region’s Kurdish-majority towns.

Mazloum Kobani, commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurdish-dominated militia armed and trained by the US to fight Isis, said the group would accept the ceasefire. But he was quoted by local media as saying it would be limited to the region between the towns of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn, appearing to differ from Ankara’s broader interpretation of the deal. He added that it was a “tentative agreement”.

Mr Pence said Turkey had made a commitment not to take military action in Kobani, a Kurdish-majority town that became totemic among Syrian Kurds after fending off an attack by Isis jihadis in 2015. But that was disputed by Mr Cavusoglu, who said Turkey had made no such commitment. The town was not mentioned in the joint statement.

“Our administration has already been in contact with Syrian Defence Forces and we’ve already begun to facilitate their safe withdrawal from the nearly 20-mile wide safe zone area,” Mr Pence said in Ankara.

Mr Pence was leading an high-level mission that also included Robert O’Brien, US national security adviser, after Mr Trump came under withering criticism from within his own party for abandoning the US’ Kurdish allies. Mr Trump appeared to give a green light to Mr Erdogan for the attack 11 days ago by removing US troops from north-east Syria, where US-backed Kurdish forces had been fighting Isis jihadis. 

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Mr Trump’s decision to remove US troops from the area triggered an international outcry and sparked the fiercest bipartisan rebuke from Congress the president has faced since taking office. Democratic and Republican critics accused Mr Trump of betraying the Kurdish forces that spearheaded the US-led campaign against Isis jihadis in the region. 

The US House of Representatives voted 354-60 on Wednesday for a resolution censuring Mr Trump over what many experts say is the biggest foreign policy blunder of his presidency. 

The Turkish assault, targeting a militia that Ankara says is a terrorist group, has also raised fears of an Isis resurgence as the Kurdish forces shifted focus to defending themselves. 

Mr Trump’s decision to withdraw all 1,000 troops in Syria has left a vacuum rapidly filled by Russia, which has used the eight-year Syrian civil war to reassert itself as a key power in the Middle East.

The Kurdish groups that had created a semi-autonomous state in Syria’s north-east corner were forced to strike a deal with the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to ward off Turkey’s assault. The Syrian army — backed by Russian forces — has since established a presence in towns near the Turkish border for the first time in seven years. 

It remained unclear how the planned Turkish “safe zone” will interact with towns newly under Syrian regime control, or whether the proposal will be acceptable to Moscow. Russia has previously expressed deep unease about the Turkish incursion, and warned that Turkish troops should not push deeper than 10km into Syrian territory.

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Mr Erdogan is due to meet next week with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president. Shortly before the meetings with the US officials in Ankara, a group of Turkish officials met with a visiting Russian delegation led by Mr Putin’s Syria envoy. 

The week of fighting since the launch of Turkey’s operation has killed more than 70 civilians and emptied towns as hundreds of thousands of people have fled for safety.

Mr Trump said the agreement helped the Kurds and that it “saved their lives”. He said the decision would allow the US to remove its troops from Syria — a move that he had already announced — but said the US would oversee the safe zone inside Syria.

Asked if he believed the ceasefire would last more than the initial five days, Mr Trump said: “I think that it is going to last. President Erdogan is very smart.”

Additional reporting by Andrew England in London

Follow Demetri Sevastopulo and Laura Pitel on Twitter: @dimi and @LauraPitel

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