US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Friday that no US troops will take part in enforcing the so-called “safe zone” in northern Syria and the United States “is continuing our deliberate withdrawal from northeastern Syria“.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan earlier on Friday said Turkey will set up a dozen observation posts across northeast Syria, insisting that a planned safe zone will extend much further than US officials said was covered under a fragile ceasefire deal.
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The truce, announced by US Vice President Mike Pence after talks in Ankara with Erdogan, sets out a five-day pause to let the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) pull out of the Turkish safe zone.
The deal was aimed at easing a crisis that saw President Donald Trump order a hasty and unexpected US retreat, which his critics said amounted to abandoning loyal Kurdish allies that fought for years alongside US troops against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS).
In contrast with 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.
“No US ground forces will participate in the enforcement of the safe zone, however, we will remain in communication with both Turkey and the SDF,” Esper told reporters on Friday.
Esper said he will be travelling to the Middle East and Brussels in the coming days to discuss issues including the future of counter-ISIL campaign.
He also said he had spoken with his Turkish counterpart on Friday and reiterated that Ankara must adhere to the ceasefire deal and ensure the safety of people in areas controlled by Turkish forces.
“Protecting religious and ethnic minorities in the region continues to be a focus for the administration. This ceasefire is a much-needed step in protecting those vulnerable populations,” Esper said.
Esper added that he reminded Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar of Turkey’s responsibility for maintaining security of ISIL prisoners in areas affected by Turkey’s operation.
Officials have said a number of ISIL fighters, likely just over 100, have escaped custody since Turkey launched its operation last week.
A US defence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the US would continue aerial surveillance in northeast Syria to monitor prisons holding ISIL fighters.
There was shelling and machine-gun fire earlier on Friday, but Trump told reporters that things are back to a “full pause”.
He also claimed “big progress” against ISIL in Syria, saying some European countries are now willing to take responsibility for detained ISIL fighters who are from their countries.
“Anyway, big progress being made!!!!” he exclaimed on Twitter. A day earlier, he had proclaimed that a US-brokered ceasefire deal with Turkey marked “a great day for civilisation”. Trump said nothing further about the European nations he contended had agreed to take some of the ISIL fighters.
‘Sometimes you have to let them fight it out’
Trump was widely criticised for turning on the Kurds, who had taken heavy casualties as partners with the US in fighting ISIL since 2016.
While US officials have insisted that Trump did not authorise Turkey’s operation, the ceasefire codifies nearly all of Turkey’s stated goals in the conflict.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the US had accepted the idea of a safe zone long pushed by Turkey, and he insisted Turkish armed forces will control the zone. He also made clear that Turkey will not stop at a previously limited zone; he said Turkish control of the Syrian side of the border must extend all the way to the Iraqi border.
Caught in the middle, 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.
Trump seemed to endorse the Turkish aim of ridding the Syrian side of the border of the Kurdish fighters. “They had to have it cleaned out,” he said.
During a campaign rally in Texas on Thursday night, Trump said, “Sometimes, you have to let them fight, like two kids in a lot, you got to let them fight and then you pull them apart.”
‘US abandoned an ally’
Leading US politicians, including many from Trump’s own party, were less pleased with the president.
Senator Mitt Romney, the Republicans’ presidential nominee in 2012, said he welcomed the ceasefire but it “does not change the fact that America has abandoned an ally”.
While the ceasefire seemed likely to temporarily slow legislation in Congress aimed at punishing Turkey and condemning Trump’s US troop withdrawal, politicians gave no sign of completely dropping the measures.
Shortly before the announcement of the pause in hostilities, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen introduced legislation that would bar US military aid to Turkey, seek to curb foreign arms sales to Ankara and impose sanctions on top Turkish officials unless Turkey withdraws its forces.
The senators said they planned to move “full steam ahead” with the legislation despite the ceasefire deal.