Under mounting US and EU pressure, widespread condemnation and allegations of war crimes and use of banned weapons, Turkey has frozen its nine-day military offensive into northeastern Syria. Ankara said it had agreed to suspend military operations in northern Syria for five days in return for a US pledge to facilitate a pullout by Syrian Kurdish fighters, a deal President Trump hailed as “an amazing outcome”. The decision was agreed to on Thursday after difficult talks between Erdogan and visiting US Vice President Mike Pence who headed a delegation which included Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The US-brokered deal with Erdogan came as the Trump administration had been subjected to serious bipartisan pressure and threat of severe economic sanctions bill following what was widely regarded as a US abandonment of its Kurdish allies in NE Syria, jointly engaged in military action against ISIS terrorists. Kurdish positions and local infrastructure facilities and installations had been under heavy Turkish airstrikes and artillery shelling since the start of operation “Spring Peace” on October 9th. Ankara brands the YPG militia, main component of Kurdish SDF Syrian Democratic Forces, as “terrorists” themselves and of being the outlawed PKK’s arm in Syria.
War crimes and banned weapons allegations
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Turkish army have been under growing criticism and outrage coming from Arab, Islamic and western nations, for the extensive and disproportionate use of military might in its offensive against the Kurds, undermining regional security and causing large civilian displacement in the area.
A videotape was recently released and promoted over several social media and news outlets showing Turkish soldiers with JOH (Janderma Ozel Harekat) – a Turkish army para-military special force- beheading Kurdish fighters who fell in recent battles believed to had happened last May during operation “Olive Branch” in the Syrian border region of Efren. Turkish soldiers were filmed committing the outrageous ISIS-like beheadings whilst their commander was bragging in Turkish “We have taken our revenge. Our blood has not remained in the ground”. He instructed a fellow soldier to take pictures and film the massacre, and to share it using Bluetooth only (so that it can’t be intercepted).
Yesterday, the SDF said it suspects that banned weapons were being used by the Turkish army against its fighters in Ras al-Ain. “We urge international organizations to send their teams to investigate some wounds sustained in attacks,” SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said on Twitter. A senior Turkish official rejected the allegation which are yet to be officially verified. However, some human rights organizations, activists and EU parliamentarians are talking of filing war crimes lawsuits against the Turkish army and officials, thus exerting even more pressure over Erdogan and his officials.
Who will fill the gap should SDF pullback?
As the announcement of a five-day stop of hostilities in NE Syria came out, the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was quick to comment on the deal reached with Vice President Pence by claiming that the Turkish army was to control the 20-mile zone from which SDF was expected to vacate. Moreover, he maintained that the two sides had agreed to destroy SDF positions and heavy armament. However, the Kurds didn’t say they would withdraw from the area, hand over heavy weapons and dismantle fortification as conditioned by the agreement reached Thursday by the US and Turkey.
On the ground, the story is quite different from such scenarios with the massive deployment of Syrian army units over thousands of kilometers of Syrian territories up to within four kilometers from the Turkish borders in certain positions. The SAA is now deployed in and around Ras al-Ain (Kobani), Manbij, Tabqa, Qamishli, Hassakah, Raqqa, Deir Ezzor and other cities, towns and villages, some right opposite the Turkish army and proxy units across the northeastern frontiers.
Some Kurdish factions are reported to have so far refused to hand over their weapons to any party, fearing for their life and security in the wake of the Turkish aggression that started straight after president Trump had ordered a pullout of US forces from northeastern Syria. Defense officials in Washington said they have no instructions to reverse the US pullout or to help facilitate the Kurdish withdrawal.
“Today the United States and Turkey have agreed to a cease-fire in Syria,” Pence said, adding that Turkey would pause military operations for 120 hours while Kurdish forces withdraw from a “safe zone.” Once that withdrawal is complete, the cease-fire will become permanent, he said.
Cessation of hostilities took effect as planned at 8 p.m. GMT last night, and the SDF boss Mazloum Abdi told the Kurdish television channel Rouhani TV that the Syrian Democratic Forces will do what needs to be done for the ceasefire deal to stand firm and succeed.
Syria’s conflict cards reshuffled, once again
Cards in the Syria conflict appear to have been once again wildly reshuffled following the ceasefire agreement and the US-Turkish deal. Analytical perspectives of it vary between those who believe that the deal fulfils Ankara’s objectives via totally neutralizing the threat of armed Kurdish presence and the establishment potentially independent entity for the Kurds along its borders, and those who see it a chance and necessity to avoid more bloodshed and humanitarian disasters in the region.
How is Russia going to respond, given its growing role and responsibilities as a guarantor, with both the Kurds as well as the Syrian government, that the territorial integrity of Syria shall not be undermined by any mutual agreements or side-way deals, remains to be seen. Moscow has brokered the landmark deal between Damascus and Syrian Kurds that enabled the ultra-fast deployment of Syrian army units over a vast sway of strategic land for the first time in many years, and was the only mediator between Kurds and the Syrian government regarding a semi-autonomous region in the country’s northeast. All these factors and many more, indicate that the fast-moving conflict in Syria could be coming closer to a long-due end, or might have entered a new phase of complicated unpredictability.