US vice president says Ankara agreed to a five-day ceasefire in Syria to allow Kurdish forces to withdraw.
Mike Pence, the vice president of the United States, said Washington and Ankara have agreed to a ceasefire in Turkey’s assault northeast Syria.
The announcement on Thursday came after talks between Pence and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Turkish capital.
The ceasefire grants the Kurdish-led forces that were Washington’s main Syrian ally in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or ISIS) five days to withdraw from the so-called “safe-zone” Ankara wants to establish inside Syria.
Turkey launched its cross-border offensive on October 9, aiming to clear the region of Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), a group Ankara considers “terrorists” linked to Kurdish separatists on its soil. The campaign, dubbed Operation Peace Spring, would also allow the repatriation of Syrian refugees, according to Turkish officials.
However, there are fears the offensive may result in mass displacement of people and the revival of ISIL.
Here are the latest updates:
US Defense Secretary Mark Esper arrived in Baghdad on Wednesday, where he is likely to face questions about how long US troops withdrawing from northeast Syria will stay in Iraq.
Iraq’s military said on Tuesday that US forces crossing into Iraq as part of a pull-out from Syria do not have permission to stay and can only be there in transit.
While Esper initially told reporters the troops withdrawing from Syria would go to western Iraq to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) and “help defend Iraq,” he said on Tuesday that Washington aimed to eventually bring the troops back to the US.
Esper is expected to meet his Iraqi counterpart as well as Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and discuss the US troop drawdown from Syria and the role Iraq will play in it.
“Our key priority with Iraq is encouraging the continued secure, stable, independent Iraq,” a senior U.S. defense official said.
Esper’s trip also follows an agreement on Tuesday between Ankara and Moscow that Syrian and Russian forces will deploy in northeast Syria to remove Kurdish fighters and their weapons from the border with Turkey.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as President Donald Trump’s policy changes on Syria sparked concern among Israelis.
Washington’s top diplomat and the veteran prime minister began the meeting on Friday morning at Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem.
Israelis have been watching Trump’s decisions on Syria closely, concerned that their country too could be abandoned by its most important ally.
Beyond that, Israel has longstanding concerns over whether arch-enemy Iran will move to fill any vacuum in neighbouring Syria, where Tehran has been supporting President Bashar al-Assad in an eight-year-old civil war.
The Kremlin has said it expected to receive information from Turkey after Ankara agreed a deal with the United States to halt its offensive in Syria for five days, the RIA news agency reported.
“We expect to receive information from Turkey,” RIA quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan is due to hold talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin about Syria on Tuesday next week in southern Russia.
Shelling and gunfire have resounded around the northeast Syrian town of Ras al Ain, a day after Turkey agreed with the United States to pause its offensive in Syria for five days to let Kurdish forces withdraw.
Machine-gun fire and shelling could be heard from the Turkish town of Ceylanpinar across the border from Ras al Ain, and smoke rose from one part of the Syrian town.
It was unclear what if any damage came from the shelling heard on Friday.
Turkish forces and Syrian rebel allies have committed “war crimes” including summary executions during their offensive in northeast Syria, Amnesty International said.
Amnesty accused Ankara’s forces of “serious violations and war crimes, summary killings and unlawful attacks” in the operation launched on October 9.
“Turkish military forces and a coalition of Turkey-backed Syrian armed groups have displayed a shameful disregard for civilian life,” Amnesty said.
There was no immediate response from Ankara, which announced a suspension of the attacks late Thursday, but it says all possible measures have been taken to avoid civilian casualties.
Australia has ruled out retrieving dozens of Australian women and children from refugee camps during the cease-fire in Syria.
Australian Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said on Friday the situation remained too dangerous to send Australian troops or officials into the war-torn nation.
Dutton said he is hopeful the cease-fire will lead to lasting peace.
About 46 Australian women and children, who fled the territory held by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), are being held at the al-Hawl refugee camp in northern Syria near the area of the Turkish operation.
Eight Australian offspring of two slain ISIL fighters were removed from Syria in June, Australia’s only organised repatriation from the conflict zone.
Antonio Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations, welcomed efforts to de-escalate hostilities in northeast Syria and protect civilians, according to a spokesman.
In a brief statement, the UN said “the secretary-general recognises that there is still a long way to go for an effective solution to the crisis in Syria”.
Mazloum Abdi, the commander of the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), told Kurdish media his forces would abide by Ankara’s ceasefire agreement.
The extent of the ceasefire stretched 100km along the Syria-Turkey border from the town of Tel Abyad to Ras al-Ain, he told Ronahi TV. “We have not discussed the fate of other areas,” he said, referring to other parts of northeastern Syria where Turkey wants to create what it calls a “safe zone”.
“We will do whatever we can for the success of the ceasefire agreement,” Abdi said, describing it as a “tentative agreement.”
The president of the UN Security Council said that Thursday’s ceasefire would be “a great thing if it happens.”
South Africa’s UN ambassador, Jerry Matjila, this month’s president, told reporters that members were waiting for details. “If it does happen, I think it’s a step in the good direction,” he said.
Donald Trump, the US president, credited his threat of sanctions on Turkey as “tough love” that led Ankara to agree to a five-day cease-fire in its battle with Kurds in northern Syria.
Talking to reporters in Fort Worth, Texas, Trump said the Kurds were happy with the deal.
He also heaped praise on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, saying: “He’s a hell of a leader. He did the right thing. I have great respect for the president.”
This deal could NEVER have been made 3 days ago. There needed to be some “tough” love in order to get it done. Great for everybody. Proud of all!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 17, 2019
This is a great day for civilization. I am proud of the United States for sticking by me in following a necessary, but somewhat unconventional, path. People have been trying to make this “Deal” for many years. Millions of lives will be saved. Congratulations to ALL!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 17, 2019
Mevlut Cavusoglu, Turkey’s foreign minister, confirmed Ankara agreed to temporarily halt its offensive in northeast Syria to allow Kurdish fighters to withdraw from the region.
“The US side has accepted the necessity of a safe zone to protect Turkey’s security interests. And we have reached a full agreement for the Turkish army to control this zone,” he told a news conference in Ankara.
“This is not a ceasefire, a ceasefire can only be made only between two legitimate sides,” he said, adding that withdrawing Kurdish fighters will have to return their heavy weapons and destroy their fortifications.
Mike Pence said Washington will impose no further sanctions on Turkey once there is a ceasefire in northern Syria.
“With the implementation (of the ceasefire), the US will not impose further sanctions on Turkey,” Pence said after talks in Ankara.
Trump will also withdraw existing economic sanctions on Turkey when Kurdish fighters withdraw from the border area and Ankara brings an end to military hostilities.
US Vice President Mike Pence said Washington and Ankara agreed to a ceasefire in northeast Syria.
“Today the United States and Turkey have agreed to a ceasefire in Syria. Turkish side will pause Operation Peace Spring in order to allow for the withdrawal of YPG forces from the safe zone for 120 hours.
“All military operations under Operation Peace Spring will be paused and Operation Peace Spring will be halted entirely on completion of the withdrawal,” he told a news conference in Ankara.
Donald Trump, US president, announced “great news” from talks between US and Turkish delegations in Ankara. “Millions of lives will be saved”, he said in a Twitter post.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 17, 2019
Talks between the Turkish and US delegations in Ankara led by Erdogan and Mike Pence have ended.
An almost two-hour meeting between Erdogan and Pence in Ankara has ended.
The two leaders met at the Turkish president’s office at 3:40pm (12:40 GMT) and held talks for one hour and 40 minutes, according to Turkish state media.
The one-on-one meeting was followed an expanded bilateral meeting with the full delegations.
Hulusi Akar, Turkey’s defence minister, said that there were no chemical weapons in the inventory of the armed forces, claiming that it was the “terrorists” in Syria who used such weapons.
Minister Akar: “We receive information that the terrorist organization, after using chemical weapons itself, will throw the blame onto our Armed Forces and try to create perception. It is a fact that there is no chemical weapon in the TAF's inventory.”https://t.co/sgMcltgqzx pic.twitter.com/g3nVggKO4I
— T.C. Millî Savunma Bakanlığı (@tcsavunma) October 17, 2019
Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, said Damascus will respond to “Turkish aggression” on any part of its territory, according to state media.
“We will respond to it and confront it, in all its forms, anywhere in Syria, using all legitimate means at our disposal,” al-Assad reportedly said.
Larry Kudlow, the White House’s economic adviser, said Washington is prepared to levy additional sanctions on Turkey if necessary.
“We will use sanctions, and we may use more sanctions to keep Turkey in line,” he told CNBC in an interview.
A spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry said Syria should be handed control over its border with Turkey as part of any settlement of the conflict in the region.
“We are convinced that long-term stability and security in this region of Syria, and in the country and the Middle East in general, is possible only on the basis of Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” said Maria Zakharova.
“This means at the end of the day, the Syrian legitimate government must be handed the ultimate control over all national territory, including control of the border areas with Turkey.”
Moscow promised Ankara that Kurdish YPG forces “will not be on the other side of the border” in Syria, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was quoted as saying by the BBC.
“If Russia, accompanied by the Syrian army, removes YPG elements from the region, we will not oppose this,” he added.
Kurdish authorities in northeast Syria issued a statement calling for a humanitarian corridor to evacuate civilians from a flashpoint border town encircled by Ankara’s forces.
The appeal for a civilian exit from Ras al-Ain came after Syrian rebels allied to Turkey hit a health facility in the town, trapping patients and staff inside, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
A Turkish official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told the London-based Middle East Eye that Ankara threw away Trump’s letter to Erdogan in the dustbin.
“We just dumped his letter to the trash,” the official said, adding: “The date on the letter is 9 October, the same day we began Operation Peace Spring. Our president gave the best response by launching the operation on the same day at 4pm.”
The letter was leaked a day before the US vice president arrived in Ankara seeking a ceasefire between Turkey and the Kurdish-led SDF.
Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s former prime minister, said all meetings with US officials should be cancelled.
“The Turkish nation and state were offended,” he tweeted.
Sayın Cumhurbaşkanı’nın şahsında Türk milleti ve devleti rencide edilmiştir. Özür dilenmediği takdirde yarın yapılması beklenen görüşmeler ve ABD ziyareti acilen iptal edilmelidir.
— Ahmet Davutoğlu (@Ahmet_Davutoglu) October 16, 2019
The US vice president arrived in Ankara for talks with Erdogan over Turkey’s military offensive into northeast Syria.
Pence is expected to urge Turkey to halt its offensive against Kurdish fighters in the region, a day after Trump threatened heavy sanctions over the operation.
Russia questioned the tone of a letter sent by Trump to his Turkish counterpart, describing it as “highly unusual” for correspondence between heads of state.
The White House on Wednesday released the October 9 letter, in which Trump told Erdogan: “Don’t be a tough guy” and “Don’t be a fool!”
Dimitry Peskov, spokesman for the Kremlin, said: “You don’t often encounter such language in correspondence between heads of state. It’s a highly unusual letter.”
Moscow said it was concerned by the humanitarian situation in northeast Syria following Turkey’s decision to launch a military operation there.
Peskov said Russia was especially concerned about the refugee situation.
He added that Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart would discuss Ankara’s actions in Syria at a meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Tuesday next week.
Turkey could allocate funds in its 2020 budget for building housing for refugees in a “safe zone” it wants to set up in northern Syria after a military incursion there, the head of the presidency’s budget directorate said.
Ankara wants to clear the Kurdish YPG militia from the length of its border with Syria and establish a zone that will extend some 20 miles (32 km) south. It says it will settle in that area up to 2 million of the 3.6 million refugees that Turkey currently hosts.
There are no funds allocated in the 2020 budget for the housing projects but it could be done if needed, Naci Agbal, the head of the Strategy and Budget Directorate said.
“The government budget is strong, flexible. The necessary initiative will be taken,” he said, adding that Turkey could also boost spending on military operations.
Turkish forces and Kurdish fighters continue to battle in the border town of Ras al-Ain, considered a strategic point for both.
Syrian forces moving north have become a major obstacle for Turkey which launched its offensive into northeast Syria a week ago in an attempt to create its so-called “safe-zone” in the area.
Russia, which backs Syria, has called Turkey’s military operation in northeast Syria “unacceptable”.
Humanitarian groups in northeastern Syria are scrambling to provide aid to hundreds of thousands of people as rapidly shifting battle lines make it increasingly difficult to reach them.
Nearly all foreign aid workers have been evacuated because of security concerns, and there are fears that local staff could face reprisals, either at the hands of Turkish-led forces pushing in from the north or Syrian troops fanning out across territory held by the embattled Kurds.
Doctors Without Borders, which operates in war zones around the globe and is known by its French acronym MSF, said on Tuesday it had decided to suspend most of its activities and evacuate all its international staff from northeastern Syria.
The International Rescue Committee also said it has suspended its health operations in the northeast because of “hostilities and uncertainty”.
Hungary would have to “use force” at its southern border with Serbia to protect the European Union’s frontier if Turkey delivers on a threat to open the gates for refugees through the Balkans towards Europe, Hungary’s prime minister said.
“If Turkey sets off further hundreds of thousands on top of (existing migrant flows), then we will need to use force to protect the Hungarian border and the Serbian-Hungarian frontier and I do not wish for anyone that we should need to resort to that,” Prime Minister Viktor Orban said.
Turkish President Erdogan is expected to meet US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence in Ankara to discuss the Turkish offensive in northeast Syria.
“At this point, the vice president and I are planning to take off later this afternoon,” Pompeo told US media on Wednesday. “And we have every expectation that we will meet with President Erdogan.”
Erdogan told Sky News earlier on Wednesday that he would not meet with the US delegation led by Pence before reversing his position in comments to the Turkish press.
On the day Turkey launched its offensive in northeast Syria, Trump wrote to Erdogan saying the Turkish president would be remembered as a “devil” if he moved ahead with the military action.
Trump started his October 9 letter suggesting they could “work out a good deal”.
“You don’t want to be responsible for the slaughtering of thousands of people, and I don’t want to be responsible for destroying the Turkish economy,” he wrote.
“History will look upon you favorably if you get this done the right and humane way,” Trump continued. “It will look upon you forever as the devil if good things don’t happen.”
“Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!” he said, adding that the SDF‘s commander was willing to negotiate.
The authenticity of the letter was confirmed by the White House.
EXCLUSIVE: I have obtained a copy of @realDonaldTrump’s letter to #Erdogan. @POTUS warns him to not “be a tough guy! Don’t be a fool!” Says he could destroy Turkey’s economy if #Syria is not resolved in a humane way. Details tonight at 8pm #TrishRegan #FoxBusiness pic.twitter.com/9BoSGlbRyt
— Trish Regan (@trish_regan) October 16, 2019
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will travel to Jerusalem and Brussels after his visit to Turkey on Thursday with Vice President Mike Pence, the State Department said on Wednesday.
Pompeo will meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Friday and then travel later that day to Brussels for a meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, the statement said.
Pence and Pompeo are going to Turkey’s capital Ankara to urge Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan to stop his invasion of Syria.
Trump met members of Congress at the White House on Wednesday to discuss Turkey and Syria.
Democrats say Trump insulted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, calling her a “third-rate politician.” Democratic leaders left shortly afterwards.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is trying to pin the blame on Pelosi, saying she stormed out of the meeting.
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Senate Republicans are sticking up for the US-allied Syrian Kurds after Trump defended his pullout of US troops on Wednesday.
GOP Leader Mitch McConnell called the partnership “a terrific alliance” that set the ISIL group back and says he is “sorry we are where we are”.
Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “has not been a reliable ally. The Kurds have been a reliable ally.”
Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa added: “We really have left behind and abandoned a strategic partner, the Kurds, who stood by our men and women in uniform in the fight” to defeat ISIL.