US and Turkey agree on Turkish ceasefire with Syrian Kurds

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, talks with US vice president Mike Pence Credit: Presidential Press Service via AP, Pool

The US and Turkey have agreed to a ceasefire in the Turks’ deadly attacks on Kurdish fighters in northern Syria.

The ceasefire requires the Kurds to vacate the area in an arrangement that largely solidifies Turkey’s position and aims in the week-long conflict.

The deal includes a conditional halt to American economic sanctions.

After negotiations with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, US vice president Mike Pence hailed the five-day ceasefire as the way to end the bloodshed caused by Turkey’s invasion of Syria.

He remained silent on whether it amounted to a second abandonment of America’s former Kurdish allies in the fight against the so-called Islamic State group.

Turkish troops and Turkish-backed Syrian fighters launched their offensive against Kurdish forces in northern Syria a week ago, two days after President Donald Trump suddenly announced he was withdrawing the US military from the area.

Mr Trump was widely criticised for turning on the Kurds, who had taken heavy casualties as partners with the US in fighting Islamic State extremists since 2016.

Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the United States had accepted the idea of a “safe zone” long pushed by Turkey, and he insisted Turkish armed forces will control the zone.

The commander of Kurdish-led forces in Syria, Mazloum Abdi, told Kurdish TV: “We will do whatever we can for the success of the ceasefire agreement.”

But one Kurdish official, Razan Hiddo, declared that Kurdish people would refuse to live under Turkish occupation.

Mr Trump had no reservations, hailing “a great day for civilisation”.

“Everybody agreed to things that three days ago they would have never agreed to,” he told reporters. “That includes the Kurds. The Kurds are now much more inclined to do what has to be done. Turkey is much more inclined to do what has to be done.”

It was not clear whether the deal announced by Mr Pence means the US military will play a role in enabling or enforcing the ceasefire. Mr Pence said the US would “facilitate” the Kurds’ pullout, but he did not say if that would include the use of American troops.

The Pentagon had no immediate comment.

As Mr Pence was speaking in Ankara, US troops were continuing to board military aircraft leaving northern Syria. Officials said a couple of hundred had already departed, with hundreds more consolidated at a few bases waiting to move out.

Senator Lindsey Graham, a confidant of Mr Trump who has criticised the president’s pullout, said he thinks US troops will be needed as part of an effort to implement and enforce a halt to the fighting.

In contrast with Mr Pence’s description of a limited safe zone, the agreement would effectively create a zone of control patrolled by the Turkish military that Ankara wants to stretch for the entire border from the Euphrates River to the Iraqi border, though the agreement did not define the extent of the zone. Turkish forces currently control about a quarter of that length, captured in the past nine days.

The rest is held by the Kurdish-led forces or by the Syrian government military, backed by Russia, which the Kurds invited to move in to shield them from the Turks. None of those parties has much reason to let Turkish forces into the areas.

Ankara has long argued the Kurdish fighters are nothing more than an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which has waged a guerrilla campaign inside Turkey since the 1980s and which Turkey, as well as the US and European Union, designate as a terrorist organisation.

In fact, Turkey’s foreign minister rejected the word “ceasefire”, saying that would be possible only with a legitimate second party. He suggested a “pause” in fighting instead.