Following the crisis that stemmed from President Trump’s abrupt announcement of withdrawing U.S. troops from northeastern Syria earlier this month, the United States have finally reached a new agreement with Turkey, which appears relentless in its advance inside Syria after the United States clear the way.
In an emergency meeting that took longer than what it was scheduled for, the U.S. Vice President Mike Pence travelled to Ankara to meet Turkey’s Erdogan on Thursday, Oct. 17, to strike a new deal meant to ease the fighting that has shook northeastern Syria in the past days.
But the deal only gives Kurdish forces 5 days to pull out of areas Turkey aims at seizing, in an effort to create a “safe zone,” as Erdogan said, inside Syria. Yet in the morning of Friday, Oct. 18, less than 24 hours following the agreement, the ceasefire appeared to have been breached already, as firing and even shelling were reported near Ras al-Ayn, a town close to Turkish borders.
By midday that same day, President Erdogan denied those reports, but President Trump later said Erdogan told him in a phone call that “minor” fights took place in the area.
“There was some sniper fire this morning. There was mortar fire this morning. That was eliminated quickly. And they’re back to the full pause,” President Trump told reporters that same day.
“He very much wants the ceasefire, or the pause, to work,” Trump also said of Erdogan in a tweet.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.), Erdogan’s main target in his military campaign, said on Friday that the shelling hit civilian targets in the town of Ras al-Ayn. Over 200,000 people are said to have fled the conflict-torn areas since the beginning of Turkey’s incursion on Oct. 9. Some 218 people have died, the Kurdish forces said.
Turkey’s president, for his part, also hailed Trump’s “positive” efforts. “Just as we hold necessary talks on the phone, we will also hold face-to-face meetings that will turn a new page in Turkish-U.S. ties, a new milestone,” President Erdogan said on Friday.
“Trump’s circle supporting his positive approach will make our work easier,” he added.
The impromptu ceasefire agreement was supposed to mean Turkey pauses from expanding its control in the Syrian area. But Erdogan appears all the more intent on reaching other zones that the agreement did not originally include, such as Raqqa and Deir Al Zor. The New York Times reported that the original ceasefire the United States and Turkey envisioned was to cover 75 miles (roughly, 120 kilometers) across the border and some 20 miles (32 kilometers) deep inside Syria.
Yet Erdogan made it clear in a news briefing on Friday that the “safe zone” Turkey works to establish would run “440 kilometers from the very west to the east,” stretching from Iraqi borders to the Euphrates river.
The ceasefire originally stated to cover Ras al-Ayn and Tel Abyad, both border towns, where Kurdish forces are encircled by Turkish forces and allied Syrian militias, and are expected to pull out within the 5-day ceasefire. Besides aiming at pushing Syrian Kurdish forces back from its borders, Turkey said it was clearing the northeastern area of Syria in order to settle some 2 million Syrian refugees —out of 3.6 million currently staying in Turkey.
In the Friday news briefing, though, President Erdogan declared that Turkey aims at establishing “12 observation posts” in the so-called safe zone, stretching from Iraqi borders to the Euphrates river over 400 kilometers to the west.
At its best, the agreement could help stop the killing of Kurds by Turkish forces, but it fails to establish that Turkey is willing to give up its plans of advancing inside Syria.
“If the United States can keep its promise, in 120 hours the issue of the ceasefire will be resolved,” Erdogan said on Friday. “If not, our operation will continue where we left off.”
A day later, he reiterated his position in front of a crowd of supporters in the province of Kayseri, Turkey. “If it works, it works. If not, we will continue to crush the heads of the terrorists the minute the 120 hours are over,” he said, referring to the end of the ceasefire and to the Kurdish forces.
Erdogan also warned Bashar al-Assad’s in the event that his regime “makes a mistake,” as the Syrian forces appears to regaining territory ceded by the Kurdish forces when they turned to al-Assad and Russia under pressure.
The ceasefire agreement would end Tuesday, Oct. 22. That same day, Erdogan will travel to Sochi, Russia, to meet with Putin, who shares interest with both al-Assad and Erdogan.
Erdogan said they will meet to discuss what the “next step to take” will be as regards the conflict in northeastern Syria, but said Turkey will follow its own plan, whereas Russia needed to act on the northwest to establish peace.