Updated at 5:49 p.m. ET
U.S. Vice President Pence says he has brokered a cease-fire deal with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to suspend the Turkish incursion into northern Syria, targeting Kurdish forces. However, minutes later, the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu stated that he did not consider it a cease-fire.
Çavuşoğlu described it as a “pause” in the operation, dubbed Peace Spring. He said that a cease-fire “can only happen between two legitimate sides,” according to Turkish state news agency Anadolu.
The negotiations came amid an international outcry over the growing humanitarian and security crisis.
Kurdish-led forces in northern Syria have been crucial allies to the U.S. for years in the fight against ISIS. Turkey considers the Kurdish forces to be terrorist groups linked to militant organizations that stage attacks against the Turkish government.
According to the text of the joint U.S.-Turkey statement, “the Turkish side will pause Operation Peace Spring in order to allow the withdrawal of [Kurdish] YPG from the safe zone within 120 hours. Operation Peace Spring will be halted upon the completion of this withdrawal.”
The statement does not indicate the size of the safe zone along Turkey’s border with Syria, which has been a tense subject between the parties, though Pence described the zone as nearly 20 miles wide. In this area, Turkey and the U.S. agreed “to include the re-collection of YPG heavy weapons and the disablement of their fortifications and all other fighting positions.” It said that the Turkish armed forces would “primarily” enforce the safe zone.
“Turkey will end the operation in northern Syria only after YPG/PKK terrorists leave [the safe zone],” Çavuşoğlu stated.
The commander of the Kurdish-led forces in this area has said that they will follow the cease-fire agreement, according to The Associated Press.
In the Syrian city of Qamishli, people were celebrating and drivers were honking car horns as the news circulated. “We are all against this war, we love peace and security,” Abu Jamil, a Syrian Kurd, told NPR’s Daniel Estrin. “We are afraid of bullets and shelling.”
However, other Syrian Kurds were apprehensive. “We don’t want the YPG to withdraw. They protect our dignity,” Hassan Farouq said. “We deal with ourselves, why do we need a stranger to rule over us?”
Pence led a delegation to Ankara, the Turkish capital, to try to persuade Erdogan to stop Turkey’s military incursion into Syria and enact an immediate cease-fire. These goals were considered highly unlikely ahead of the meeting – for example, Erdogan senior adviser Gülnur Aybet told NPR’s Morning Edition on Thursday that “the request for a cease-fire is not realistic in this at this stage.”
The U.S. and Turkey were in talks for more than five hours, Pence said. Before Pence announced the news, President Trump sent a tweet thanking Erdogan and stating: “Millions of lives will be saved!”
“This deal could NEVER have been made 3 days ago,” Trump later added. “There needed to be some ‘tough’ love in order to get it done. Great for everybody. Proud of all!”
“There’s lots of challenges that remain, but this effort tonight sets the conditions for the successful resolution of this particular piece, which created enormous risk and a real risk of instability,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo added at the news conference.
The Turkish campaign targeting Kurdish forces started after the Trump unexpectedly withdrew U.S. troops stationed in northeast Syria following a call with Erdogan.
Earlier this week, Trump decried Turkey’s “dangerous and destructive path,” even threatening that he is “fully prepared to swiftly destroy Turkey’s economy.” On Wednesday, he appeared to dismiss the importance of the deepening crisis: “They have a problem at the border, it’s not our border.”
The humanitarian toll is mounting. The U.N. says at least 160,000 civilians have been displaced in the fighting.
Pence has said the U.S. would help facilitate clearing the safe zone. But a U.S. military official tells NPR’s Tom Bowman that the U.S. troops are continuing to pack up and leave. The official said they’re awaiting guidance from the White House about any change in orders.
The U.S. had imposed some limited sanctions on Turkish officials. Pence stated that with the implementation of the cease-fire, the U.S. would not impose any further sanctions on Turkey. And he added that “once a permanent cease-fire is in effect, the president has agreed to withdraw the economic sanctions that were imposed this last Monday.”
Aybet told NPR that the Turkish objectives in northern Syria are clear: “Until the area is cleared from terrorists, our objective will not be fulfilled. When that objective is fulfilled, the operation is over.”
In the U.S., Trump’s handling of the situation in Syria has drawn criticism from both parties, including some of his close allies. “I fear this is a complete and utter national security disaster in the making and I hope President Trump will adjust his thinking,” Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said Wednesday.
The House passed a denunciation of the U.S. troop withdrawal in a resounding 354-60 vote on Wednesday. Likewise, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday that “my preference would be for something even stronger than the resolution the House passed.”
McConnell had previously said that he is “gravely concerned by recent events in Syria and by our nation’s apparent response thus far.”
Since U.S. troops withdrew from northern Syria, Kurdish forces seeking protection have formed an alliance with troops from the Syrian regime.
The U.S. military has evacuated its main base in northeast Syria, where it trained Kurdish fighters to battle ISIS. U.S. military spokesperson Col. Myles Caggins told NPR’s Estrin that as Turkish-backed fighters neared the base, U.S. planes “bombed the base to destroy an ammunition cache and make it harder for the base to be taken over as troops left.”