- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 17, 2019

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday agreed to a Trump administration deal for a five-day halt in Ankara’s Syria incursion to allow the U.S. to help Kurdish fighters exit a 20-mile border buffer zone, as Congress struggled to respond to White House moves that sparked the crisis.

Emerging from more than four hours of emergency talks, Vice President Mike Pence said Mr. Erdogan was prepared to call off his military incursion into Syria, dubbed Operation Peace Spring, once there is a complete withdrawal of Syrian Kurdish militia fighters, part of the broader Syrian Democratic Forces that Turkey considers to be terrorists linked to a Kurdish separatist movement inside Turkey.

Mr. Erdogan will not attack Kobani, a key border city, and will help the U.S. detain Islamic State fighters in the region, Mr. Pence said. President Trump agreed to delay a string of punitive economic sanctions that were being prepared on Turkish officials and business sectors.

Mr. Trump and Mr. Pence hailed the accord as a breakthrough.

“I didn’t know it would work out this well. It’s a great day for the United States. It’s a great day for Turkey,” Mr. Trump said while traveling to a political rally in Texas.

The talks followed a chaotic and violent week in the wake of Mr. Trump’s surprise announcement that he was pulling all U.S. forces out of northeastern Syria, where they had been serving as a buffer protecting the Kurds from an increasingly angry Mr. Erdogan. Turkey’s invasion quickly followed, and Russian-backed troops of Syrian President Bashar Assad also rushed to fill the vacuum.

Mr. Trump has not been swayed by the bipartisan uproar over his decision. He said he was elected to get America out of endless wars and that the powers of the region, not American troops, should sort out the region’s problems.

But critics said the pullout, which Mr. Trump conveyed to Turkey’s government before announcing it publicly, amounted to a green light for Turkey — a NATO ally — to invade to do battle with the Kurds. The outrage was fueled by the U.S. alliance with the Kurdish fighters, who carried out the bulk of the ground war against the Islamic State, or ISIS, and lost an estimated 11,000 soldiers. The Kurds also have been holding Islamic State prisoners for the U.S. in camps along the Turkey-Syria border.

Turkish officials notably did not call the agreement a “cease-fire” and were vague about what would happen if the five-day break in fighting did not produce satisfactory results.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the United States accepted the idea of a “safe zone” long pushed by Turkey, and he insisted that Turkish armed forces will control the zone, The Associated Press reported. Turkey, he said, will not stop at a previously limited zone but will seek to extend the buffer zone all the way to the Iraqi border, according to the AP.

Mr. Pence said the administration will drop the sanctions Mr. Trump imposed on Turkey this week once the cease-fire is firmly in place, although a bipartisan group of senators said they were pushing ahead with sanctions on the Erdogan government.

The bill by Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, and Sen. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat, would target Turkish officials, banks and energy companies and block U.S. military aid to the country.

“These are wide-ranging and hard-hitting,” said Mr. Graham, a staunch Republican ally of Mr. Trump who has broken with him over the troop pullout.

Fear of a genocide

The measure adds teeth to the resolution condemning the pullout that the House passed Wednesday in an overwhelming bipartisan vote.

The senators said they feared a genocide of the Kurds, a resurgence of the Islamic State and expanded the power of Iran, posing further threats to Israel.

“Sen. Graham and I don’t agree on a lot of things, but we do agree that this is a precarious day for our country and its role in the world,” Mr. Van Hollen said.

The Senate debated throughout the day on a way to resolve the crisis in Syria. But it quickly became clear that beyond being frustrated with the president’s action, there was little agreement on exactly what lawmakers could do.

Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, tried to force through a symbolic rebuke of Mr. Trump. He said it would send a signal that might make the president reverse his decisions and send U.S. troops back into Syria.

The measure was blocked by Sen. Rand Paul, a libertarian Kentucky Republican and longtime opponent of U.S. foreign military deployments. He said Congress has never authorized a U.S. war in Syria and that sending troops back would put them between Turkey and the Kurds, both U.S. allies.

He suggested another option: halting U.S. arms sales to Turkey.

Sen. James E. Risch, Idaho Republican and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said he was preparing a comprehensive bill that would address all sides of the situation.

It was unclear how the cease-fire, if it holds, could impact the lawmakers’ plans. Mr. Graham’s office said he was pushing forward with the sanctions bill despite the breakthrough in Ankara.

After the announcement, Turkish officials said their armed forces will continue patrolling the safe zone, and there are questions about whether Turkey will remove all of its troops from the Syrian side of the border even if they cease their offensive.

Faced with far superior firepower from the Turkish side, Kurdish officials said they welcomed the 120-hour pause in fighting but sent mixed signals about the longer-term fallout.

“We will do whatever we can for the success of the cease-fire agreement,” the commander of Kurdish-led forces in Syria, Mazloum Abdi, told Kurdish TV. Journalists in the region reported a marked decrease in the tempo of the shelling in the contested strip along the Syrian border.

But one Kurdish official, Razan Hiddo, told The Associated Press that Kurdish people would refuse to live under Turkish occupation, and Ambassador James Jeffrey, the State Department’s point man on the Syrian crisis, told reporters traveling with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the deal tries to make the best of the situation given the power realities on the ground.

“There’s no doubt that the [Syrian Kurdish militia] wishes that they could stay in these areas,” Mr. Jeffrey said, according to the Reuters news agency. “It is our assessment that they have no military ability to hold on to these areas and therefore we thought that a cease-fire would be much better … for trying to get some kind of control over this chaotic situation.”

Mr. Trump had no such qualms. He insisted the Kurds were “incredibly happy” with the deal Mr. Pence negotiated.

The Pentagon had no immediate comment on the deal. The roughly 1,000 U.S. troops stationed in Syria were still in the process of moving out Thursday, officials said, with hundreds waiting at military bases for their final departure from the country.

The agreement puts on hold what threatened to become a major regional conflict with serious geopolitical implications.

Earlier this week, the U.S.-backed Kurds announced that they had struck a deal with Mr. Assad’s government and with Russia to help defend themselves in the face of the Turkish assault. Under such a scenario, the Turkish military could have faced off against the SDF-Syrian-Russian coalition in a potentially far more deadly and extensive conflict.

‘Not our problem’

Mr. Trump has tried to wash his hands of Middle East problems. He said this week that the dispute between Turkey and Syria is “not our problem,” though many Republican senators revolted.

“The decision to abandon the Kurds violates one of our most sacred duties. It strikes at American honor,” said Sen. Mitt Romney, Utah Republican. “What we have done to the Kurds will stand as a bloodstain in the annals of American history.”

Mr. Trump dispatched Mr. Pence and Mr. Pompeo to Ankara to negotiate with Mr. Erdogan.

Video released by Turkish media showed Mr. Pence and Mr. Erdogan looking stern-faced before their meeting and ahead of expanded talks with their full delegations.

Mr. Trump insisted that the agreement was a big win for all sides — including the Kurds, who would be spared further violence.

“This is a solution that, well it saved their lives, frankly. It saved their lives,” Mr. Trump said after being briefed on the deal’s outlines. “If we didn’t go this unconventional, tough-love approach, you could have never gotten it done.”

He said Mr. Erdogan is “very smart” and may still visit the White House on Nov. 13, even after Mr. Trump just days earlier vowed to “ruin” the Turkish economy if Ankara did not pull back.

The Graham-Van Hollen bill demanded that Mr. Trump cancel the visit by Mr. Erdogan.

“Well, now I would say that that would be very much open,” Mr. Trump said of the visit. “I would say that, yeah, he would come.”

Democrats said Mr. Trump may be celebrating prematurely.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot L. Engel, New York Democrat, said Mr. Trump is an “arsonist who later pretends to be a fireman.” Others said he capitulated to Mr. Erdogan and dressed it up as a win.

“This illusory solution is a catastrophic, roundabout way for President Trump to give President Erdogan exactly what he wanted: a Kurdish withdrawal, and free rein over northern Syria,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat. “The president got rolled, and so did our national integrity. It is yet another betrayal to our Kurdish partners and a boon to our adversaries, Russia and Iran.”

• Stephen Dinan, S.A. Miller and Ben Wolfgang contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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