Eleven days ago, Kurdish and American troops fought side by side against ISIS, as they have for the last five years in Syria. A week ago, the Kurds watched those same Americans flee the battlefield in a disorderly retreat as the Kurds’ sworn enemy, Turkey, invaded their territory. Today, the Kurds saw Vice President Mike Pence seal their military defeat in the name of a “temporary ceasefire.”
Pence and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reached the agreement Thursday in Ankara, carving out a 20-mile wide “safe zone” in Syria set to be “primarily enforced” by Turkish forces, according to a document released by both sides. The U.S. agreed to cancel economic sanctions announced just days earlier. In return, Turkey agreed to suspend its military offensive in northern Syria for five days, nominally to allow Kurdish forces to collect their dead, wounded, and retreat from the area.
President Donald Trump hailed the deal as a major achievement. “I didn’t know it would work out this well,” he said, while traveling to a political rally in Dallas. “It’s a great day for the United States. It’s a great day for Turkey. It’s a great day for our partners.” Pence declared his mission to Ankara Thursday a success. “We think the agreement today first ends the violence, which is what President Trump sent us here to do,” Pence said. “We’ve achieved that.”
But Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, told reporters the agreement was only a “pause” in Turkey’s latest military operation against its long-standing regional enemy. “We got what we wanted,” Cavusoglu said.
American experts within the administration, and outside it, agreed with the Turkish diplomat that the U.S. had delivered a win for Ankara that contains few enforceable conditions. “This lets the Turkish offensive stand, and reinforces the impression that it was OK with the President,” said one U.S. official, who was not authorized to speak publicly. “It’s a total surrender, and a disgusting betrayal, not just of our allies but of our own people that they’re trying to pass off as some political win.” Eric Edelman, a former ambassador to Turkey under President George W. Bush, said the agreement was a capitulation by the Trump Administration. “There’s no wonder why the Turks are celebrating in Ankara,” he said. “The Administration gave them everything they wanted.”
In the U.S. Senate, the developments were not greeted with enthusiasm. A short time after Pence announced the ceasefire, Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah took to the Senate floor and called for hearings next week into how the Administration came to its current policy. “I simply don’t understand why the Administration did not explain, in advance, to Erdogan that it is unacceptable for Turkey to attack an American ally,” Romney said. “Are we so weak and so inept diplomatically that Turkey forced the hand of the United States of America? Turkey? Are we incapable of understanding and shaping complex situations? Russia seems to have figured it out. Are we less adept than they? Are our principles to be jettisoned when things get messy?”
He added: “What we have done to the Kurds will stand as a bloodstain in the annals of American history.”
Other Republicans joined in the criticism of the Administration’s efforts. “We’re all searching to see what we can do to mitigate this damage,” said Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. “Right now, we need to prepare ourselves for the consequences of what’s to come… Sometimes what is popular in the short term is not good for America’s national security.”
Trump’s critics and supporters alike are now turning their attention to the so-called safe-zone to see how Turkey acts. Thousands of Kurds still live in the region, and human rights advocates raised alarms that Ankara might seek to ethnically cleanse them.
Last month, Erdogan told world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly that up to 2 million refugees who had fled to Turkey from Syria in recent years could be re-settled back across the border once Turkish soldiers took control of the region. He showed a map with proposals to build dozens of new villages and towns to house the resettled refugees.
At the time the territory belonged to the Kurds, who were relying on American troops to defend them.
—with reporting by Philip Elliott and John Walcott