U.S., Turkey agree to cease-fire to allow Kurdish forces to retreat

The diplomatic overture took place just hours after President Donald Trump described the Kurdish forces fighting Turkish troops as “no angels.”

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By Saphora Smith and Dartunorro Clark

LONDON — Vice President Mike Pence announced Thursday that the United States reached a cease-fire agreement with Turkey to suspend its military operation in Syria to allow Kurdish forces to retreat from a designated safe zone.

Pence said that Turkey will suspend its military operations for five days to allow the Kurdish forces to leave the zone, and that U.S. forces will aid in the retreat.

The agreement comes amid growing global concern over Turkey’s military incursion in Syria after President Donald Trump ordered U.S. forces to withdraw from the country, leaving the Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG — a U.S. ally in the fight against the Islamic State terrorist group — without support.

"I'm grateful for the president's leadership. I'm grateful for the more than five hours of negotiations with President [Recep] Erdogan,” Pence said, adding that the parties “arrived at a solution that we believe will save lives."

Trump told reporters ahead of an event in Texas that his unorthodox approach to the conflict helped make the deal possible, calling Erdogan "very smart" and a "friend."

"Everybody agreed to things that three days ago they would have never agreed to — that includes the Kurds," Trump said. "This is a situation where everyone is happy."

"If we didn’t go this unconventional, tough-love approach … they couldn’t have gotten it done," Trump added.

Trump touted the ceasefire at a campaign rally later Thursday night, again calling his approach "unconventional."

"I said, you’re going to have to let them fight for a little while," he said, adding "like two kids in a lot, you gotta let them fight, then you pull them apart."

The agreement appears to be a significant embrace of Turkey’s position in the weeklong conflict, giving the Turks what they had sought to achieve with their military operation. After the Kurdish forces are cleared from the safe zone, Turkey has committed to a permanent cease-fire but is under no obligation to withdraw its troops. In addition, the deal gives Turkey relief from sanctions the administration had imposed and threatened to impose since the invasion began, meaning there will be no penalty for the operation.

Kurdish forces were not party to the agreement, and it was not immediately clear whether they would comply.

Trump praised and defended Turkey in his remarks to reporters Thursday, saying the country was taking actions to secure part of its border with Syria where Kurds have been gaining influence and it had to have that area "cleaned out."

“For many, many years Turkey, in all fairness, they've had a legitimate problem with it," Trump said. "They’ve had terrorists, they had a lot of people in there that they couldn’t have. They suffered a lot of loss of lives and they had to have it cleaned out. This outcome is something they’ve been trying to get for 10 years."

Earlier this week, Erdogan had said he would reject a cease-fire and would not cave under the threat of U.S. sanctions.

“They are pressuring us to stop the operation," he told reporters. "They are announcing sanctions. Our goal is clear. We are not worried about any sanctions.”

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Trump on Monday had ordered the new sanctions on Turkey amid sustained criticism from Democratic and Republican lawmakers over his decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria, which made way for the Turkish operation. He said on Twitter he would authorize sanctions "against current and former officials" in Turkey’s government “and any persons contributing to Turkey’s destabilizing actions in northeast Syria.”

Pence said Thursday, however, that under the cease-fire agreement, the U.S. will not impose additional sanctions. The vice president added that once the cease-fire becomes permanent, all sanctions will be lifted.

“Make no mistake about it, President Trump was very clear with our ally Turkey about American opposition to Turkish military forces entering Syria,” Pence said. "And I believe the candor and frankness that President Trump applied to this and the strength of his relationship with President Erdogan both contributed to the ability for this agreement to come about."

Trump also said Thursday that sanctions and tariffs would no longer be necessary.

"The Kurds are very happy, Turkey is very happy, the U.S. is very happy, and you know what? Civilization is very happy. It's a great thing for civilization," the president said.

Bipartisan backlash

The announcement of a cease-fire comes against the backdrop of the widespread condemnation from both parties of Trump’s withdrawal of American troops from northern Syria. On Wednesday, the Democrat-led House passed a resolution 354-60 opposing the withdrawal.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses his ruling party legislators at the Parliament, in Ankara, on Wednesday.Burhan Ozbilici / AP

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who sharply criticized Trump's decision, said he wanted to pass a stronger resolution rebuking the move. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., attempted to pass a Senate resolution by unanimous consent Thursday, but it was blocked by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.

At least one prominent Republican, Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, blasted the administration following Thursday's announcement, casting the cease-fire as “far from a victory” and demanding public hearings over why and how the U.S. pulled out of Syria and allowed Turkey to launch its military action.

“Are we so weak and so inept diplomatically that Turkey forced the hand of the United States of America? Turkey?” Romney asked in an impassioned speech from the Senate floor.

Romney said that the administration’s “decision to abandon” the Kurds “strikes at American honor” and “will stand as a bloodstain in the annals of American history."

“Honor, as well as self interest, demand we don’t abandon our allies,” he said.

Without mentioning Trump by name, Romney ripped the administration for characterizing the conflicts in the Middle East as “a mess” and for speaking “flippantly” about the crisis.

“Are we incapable of understanding and shaping complex situations?,” he asked, adding, “Russia seems to have figured it out,” a reference to how Russian has helped to fill the power vacuum in the region.

In a high-level bid to end the military conflict, Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Erdogan in Turkey on Thursday to persuade him to implement the cease-fire.

The diplomatic overture took place just hours after Trump downplayed the deteriorating conflict and described the Kurdish forces who are fighting Erdogan’s troops as “no angels.”

Trump dismissed Turkey's invasion and said the fight was over land that "has nothing to do with us."

"If Turkey goes into Syria, that’s between Turkey and Syria," he told reporters in the Oval Office. "It's not between Turkey and the United States."

The meeting followed the news that Trump wrote an extraordinary letter to Erdogan warning him not to be “a tough guy” on the same day that Turkish forces launched their attack on northern Syria last week.

“You don't want to be responsible for slaughtering thousands of people, and I don't want to be responsible for destroying the Turkish economy — and I will,” the letter read.

Grave concerns

Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northeastern Syria this month, moving out of the way for the Turkish operation, has left the region in chaos as Kurdish troops feel abandoned by America and have turned to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin to help deter the Turkish invasion.

The volatile situation has prompted grave humanitarian concerns. The international aid organization Doctors Without Borders announced in a statement Tuesday that it is suspending most of its activities in northeast Syria and has evacuated all of its international staff.

Overnight, Syrian forces took the strategic border town of Kobani, according to the Rojava Information Center, a pro-Syrian Defense Forces research group based in the Kurdish-held areas. The move will make it more difficult for Turkey to establish its “safe zone” for Syrian refugees and free of Syrian Kurdish fighters along the frontier. It is also symbolic for Syrian Kurds and their ambitions for self-rule.

As Turkish forces advance south and Syrian regime troops north, some 300,000 people have been forced to leave their homes in the first week of the Turkish invasion, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group based in Britain. Some 70 civilians have been killed, it added.

Earlier this week, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated the figure of displaced people to be around 160,000, including 70,000 children since the start of Turkey's military operation Oct. 9.

Saphora Smith reported from London. Dartunorro Clark reported from New York.

Adam Edelman and Associated Press contributed.