Or is it simply a pause? Well, I suppose that depends who you ask. The US government is adamantly regarding the agreement made with the Turkish government as a ceasefire. The Turks are referring to it as a pause. Semantics aside, a deal has been reached between the United States and Turkey following a round of negotiations in Ankara between US Vice President Mike Pence and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Turks will suspend offensive operations in Syria for 120 hours to allow Kurdish forces to withdraw from the safe zone Ankara intends to establish in northeast Syria. The extent of the ceasefire will extend along the Syria-Turkey border from Tel Abyad to Ras al-Ain. Roughly an area of 100 kilometers. How the ceasefire will affect other areas has yet to be disclosed.
Despite the news coming from Ankara, there is a lot of skepticism around the world concerning the agreement. US economic sanctions against Turkey will be halted at once. This was one of the terms of the deal. Media outlets in the United States and Europe, especially those leaning left were quick to jump on the terms of the agreement and label it a bad deal at best, a continued sellout of the Kurds at worst. There is going to be a considerable amount of scrutiny through the next five days.
The real question will be what comes after the 120 hours of ceasefire/pause end.
US pressure on Turkey is set to increase as Vice President Mike Pence, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo prepare to depart for Turkey today. The high-profile US delegation will arrive in Ankara to hold discussions on the Turkish military operation currently underway in northeastern Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared the Turkish offensive will continue. He has also ruled out the possibility of a ceasefire even as US and international criticism continues to deepen. Erdogan had initially refused to meet with Pence but now has reversed course and agreed to meet with the vice president.
Meanwhile, on the ground in Syria US troops continue their withdrawal from the northeast. Russian troops are moving into the area in an effort to fill the void, and limit Turkish territorial gains. This new Russian presence in the former US protectorate area will open the door for Syrian government forces to make further territorial gains and bring even more parts of Syria under the control of Damascus.
The US withdrawal is raising questions among America’s allies across the Middle East, especially concerning the United States’ commitments to their security. Russia’s leadership is already moving to take advantage of the situation. Vladimir Putin was in Saudi Arabia Monday, and the United Arab Emirates yesterday, ostensibly on state visits. Timing is everything in international relations, and Putin’s visits came as US troops were leaving their bases near Manbij, and Russian forces were moving in.
On Monday, President Trump indicated he will soon sign an executive order placing considerable economic sanctions on Turkey in response to its ‘destabilizing’ offensive in northeastern Syria. Sanctions indicate that Turkey has in fact gone ‘off limits’ with some of its actions, a fear Trump has voiced recently. Earlier today, the president was specific when indicating some of the economic actions to be taken against Turkey ahead of the executive order. Negotiations on a $100 trade deal between the US and Turkey will end immediately, and steel tariffs will be placed back up to 50 percent.
The executive order will bring on more aggressive measures. According to news sources in the US who obtained a copy of the order it will declare a national emergency to “address the situation in and in relation to Syria, and in particular the recent actions by the Government of Turkey to conduct a military offensive into northeast Syria.” Current and former Turkish government and military officials will be targeted.
The situation in northeastern Syria has grown increasingly unstable since Turkish forces crossed the border. The apparently intentional artillery shelling of a US base by Turkish troops is but one of the incidents that has prompted Trump’s decision to implement sanctions. Aside from the shelling, news of the Syrian government’s decision to deploy troops in the northeast to aid Kurdish and SDF forces, and confront the Turkish invasion.
Trump is hoping the economic sanctions will help the US get out in front of the recent developments, and with luck bring Turkey’s war aims back down to a realistic level.
This will be discussed more tomorrow, along with some discussion about Turkey’s precarious relationship with NATO, and its future.
Earlier this evening Turkey announced its ground forces have begun crossing the border into Syria. After a short preparatory artillery barrage, and preceded earlier by airstrikes, Turkish ground forces are making their initial assault.
When Turkey launched air strikes earlier in the day, Kurdish forces requested US air cover to protect its troops, and the Kurdish civilians located near the targets. Washington declined the request and has instructed the US military not to become involved in the fighting.
Meanwhile, back in the US, President Trump continues to receive a hearty dose of criticism from Democrats, and some of his fellow Republicans. The fear in Washington and among some military officers, and analysts is that the United States has abandoned the Kurds, a staunch ally in the fight against ISIS. Whether accurate or not, a growing concern is that other US allies will second-guess US commitments to the security, and defense of their nations, potentially undercutting the US position around the world.
Operation Peace Spring, Turkey’s long-anticipated military operation to establish a buffer zone free of Kurdish militias in northeast Syria is now underway. The offensive commenced with airstrikes against suspected Kurdish militia, and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the region. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has officially claimed the purpose of the operation is to establish a safe zone that will house Syrian refugees. Erdogan has also promised to respect Syrian sovereignty.
So far Syrian ground forces do not appear to have crossed the border but that will happen eventually. For now, the first phase of the operation is underway and focused on preparing the battlefield with air and artillery. When the enemy positions (real and suspected) have been sufficiently weakened, only then will Turkish ground forces cross over. That moment could come in a matter of hours or days, depending on a number of factors both political and military.
Reaction from around the world has been swift, and guarded for the most part. The UN Security Council will hold a private meeting on Thursday to discuss the Turkish action. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has urged Turkey to ‘act with restraint.’ In Washington, President Trump stated the US does not endorse the operation, and has made clear to Turkey that he believes it is a ‘bad idea.’ The president’s full statement, released by the White House is as follows:
“The United States does not endorse this attack and has made it clear to Turkey that this operation is a bad idea. Turkey has committed to protecting civilians, protecting religious minorities, including Christians, and ensuring no humanitarian crisis takes place—and we will hold them to this commitment.”
There will be additional updates posted on this blog later in the evening, or as events unfold.