Fighting Continues in Syria Despite Cease-Fire Agreement

The tentative agreement negotiated by the United States was seen as a major victory for Ankara.

Turkish-backed Syrian fighters drive into northern Syria.
An armoured personnel carrier transports Turkey-backed Syrian fighters on a road near the town of Kobani on the Turkish border on Oct. 16. Bakr Alkasem/AFP/Getty Images

The United States and Turkey agreed Thursday to a temporary cease-fire in northern Syria that appeared to hand Ankara a major victory in its campaign to remove Kurdish fighters from its southern border. 

But just hours after the announcement, reports emerged that Turkey continues to attack Kurdish fighters and civilian settlements in the border town of Ras al-Ain, apparently in violation of the ceasefire. Turkish-backed forces targeted a Kurdish medical convoy and an American aid organization trying to get into the town to evacuate wounded civilians, according to a Syrian conflict monitor.

Nine days into Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria, Ankara agreed to pause military operations for 120 hours while the United States facilitates the withdrawal of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) from a 20-mile safe zone along the border, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence announced in a press conference in Ankara on Oct. 17. Once the Kurdish fighters, which Turkey views as terrorists, are removed from the area, Ankara will implement a permanent cease-fire, Pence said. 

“The United States will always be grateful for our partnership with [the] SDF in defeating ISIS, but we recognize the importance and value of a safe zone to create a buffer between Syria proper and the Kurdish population and the Turkish border,” Pence said, using an acronym for the Islamic State. “President [Donald] Trump sent us here to end the violence and to achieve an immediate cease-fire.”

Almost immediately after Pence spoke, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu pushed back on how Pence framed the agreement, telling reporters it was a “pause” in Turkey’s operations but “not a cease-fire because a cease-fire takes place between two legitimate parties” and the operation was aimed at removing “terrorist elements” from the region. 

The safe zone will encompass a massive area, ranging 280 miles from the Euphrates River to the border with Iraq and 18 miles into northern Syria, Cavusoglu said. 

Some current and former U.S. officials immediately slammed the agreement as handing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a major win, effectively allowing him to extend Turkey’s borders into Kurdish-held territory. 

“The US just ratified Turkey’s plan to effectively extend its border 30km into Syria with no ability to meaningfully influence facts on the ground,” Brett McGurk, the former U.S. envoy for the coalition to defeat the Islamic State, who resigned from the Trump administration in December, wrote on Twitter. 

“This is essentially the United States validating what Turkey did and allowing them to annex a portion of Syria and displace the Kurdish population,” a senior U.S. administration official told Foreign Policy, speaking on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to the media. “It is a huge win for Turkey, and the defeat ISIS mission is over.” 

The safe zone will be primarily enforced by the Turkish armed forces, rather than the Turkish-backed proxy groups, primarily composed of Syrian army defectors and other rebels with links to extremist organizations, that have been terrorizing the local population, according to a joint statement released to reporters. 

U.S. troops will not be involved in securing the zone, the senior U.S. administration official told Foreign Policy. U.S. forces have already abandoned most of their outposts in northern Syria and will continue their withdrawal. 

In Ankara, Pence said Turkey pledged not to take any military action against Kobani, a Syrian border town that has assumed outsized symbolic significance since Kurdish groups recaptured the town from the Islamic State in 2015 in one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the campaign.

Pence also said American diplomats had consulted with Kurdish forces and that they had pledged to abide by the agreement. But SDF officials did not immediately comment on the agreement, and it is far from clear that they will agree to a deal that codifies the military gains that they have fought to prevent Turkey from making. 

The senior U.S. administration official said the SDF has privately voiced concern about the agreement. “They are unsure of what was agreed to and do not trust the Turks to do any cease-fire,” the official said.

In the joint statement, the United States and Turkey said they agreed to collect heavy weapons and remove fortifications belonging to the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the buffer zone. The YPG makes up the backbone of the SDF, and Ankara views it as an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey. 

In the statement, the two countries also agreed to continue the campaign to defeat the Islamic State in northeastern Syria, including securing thousands of Islamic State fighters and tens of thousands of their family members held in detention centers across the region.

The agreement marks a temporary halt to the violence that has erupted in northeastern Syria since Erdogan and his proxy forces swept into the region on Oct. 9, following an Oct. 6 phone call between Erdogan and Trump in which critics charge the U.S. president appeared to give his Turkish counterpart the green light to invade. Top U.S. administration officials insist that Trump gave no such green light and only decided to withdraw U.S. forces after it became clear Turkey would move forward with its operation over U.S. opposition. 

But in the long run, the deal is seen as a win for Turkey and a significant loss for the Kurds, who lost 11,000 troops in their U.S.-backed fight against the Islamic State, because Erdogan has been pushing for a 20-mile buffer zone controlled by Turkey along the border for almost a year. Until now U.S. officials and the SDF have resisted this proposal as a de facto Turkish occupation of Kurdish-held areas. Before Turkey crossed the border, the U.S. and Turkish militaries had been in the process of establishing what U.S. officials were calling a “security mechanism” on the border, which would have involved joint patrols and the SDF removing YPG fighters and fortifications from the area. But Turkey was not satisfied with the agreement and unilaterally decided to push into Syria. 

Erdogan has indicated he will seek to resettle 2 million to 3 million Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey and Europe, including those from Arab communities, in the safe zone, a move that experts worry could upend the delicate ethnic balance in the historically Kurdish region. 

As a condition of the agreement, Pence said on Thursday that the United States would refrain from imposing additional sanctions on Turkey in the coming five days. Once a permanent cease-fire is put in place following the Kurdish withdrawal from the safe zone, the Trump administration will lift limited sanctions announced this week. 

Analysts criticized those sanctions—which targeted Turkish government ministers, a pair of government agencies, and raised steel tariffs—as a weak response to the Turkish invasion. 

Lawmakers in Washington, furious at Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from northern Syria, are now pushing for harsher sanctions to be imposed on Turkey and for those penalties to remain in place until Turkish forces are withdrawn from Syrian territory.

Bipartisan legislation introduced in the Senate on Thursday would expand the number of Turkish officials subject to U.S. sanctions, restrict transactions with the Turkish military, and ban military assistance for Turkey. The measure introduced on Thursday was co-written by Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who has served as Trump’s principal defender in the Senate but who has broken with him over the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, and Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat.

But amid major uncertainty about the exact nature of Thursday’s cease-fire agreement, the backers of the legislation are planning to move forward with the measure. “Senators Van Hollen and Graham have spoken, and they agree on the need to move full steam ahead with their legislation,” said Bridgett Frey, a spokeswoman for Van Hollen.

Update Oct. 18, 2019: This story has been updated to include news that Turkey continues to attack a Syrian border town. 

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

 Twitter: @EliasGroll

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer