Deal between US, Turkey spawns more questions than answers

Deal between US, Turkey spawns more questions than answers

Announcement of 5-day pause of Turkish offensive in Syria doesn’t address how US will monitor Kurdish withdrawal, ensure IS prisoners remain in custody

Vice President Mike Pence speaks at the US ambassador's residence during a news conference with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo after their meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, October 17, 2019, in Ankara, Turkey. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Vice President Mike Pence speaks at the US ambassador's residence during a news conference with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo after their meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, October 17, 2019, in Ankara, Turkey. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

WASHINGTON (AP) — US President Donald Trump hailed it as a great day for civilization, but the agreement hammered out Thursday in Ankara between US and Turkish leaders spawned more questions than answers.

The deal calls for a five-day pause in fighting between Turkish and Kurdish fighters and puts at least a temporary halt to the battle along the Syrian border. It also gives the Turks the 20-mile-deep safe zone in Syria that leaders in Ankara have sought for months. But what it means for US forces currently withdrawing from Syria remained unclear.

A look at the key provisions of the deal and remaining uncertainties:

The agreement

A US delegation led by Vice President Mike Pence met with Turkish leaders, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for more than four hours Thursday and agreed to the five-day ceasefire in the Turkish assault on Kurdish fighters in northern Syria. The arrangement says the Syrian Kurdish fighters will withdraw out of what has been called a safe zone that is about 20-miles deep into Syria and stretches across about 125 kilometers (78 miles) of the central portion of the border between the two countries.

But almost immediately there were disagreements over what to call the deal and what it meant. Pence and Trump routinely referred to it as a ceasefire. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu rejected that term and called it a “pause” in fighting, because he said ceasefires are only possible between “two legitimate sides.” Cavusoglu also said that the Turks would only halt their operation “after the terrorist elements depart” from northeast Syria.

What also remained unclear is what the Turkish-backed militias of Syrian fighters will do and how much control the Turkish military will have or try to exert over them.

Turkish-backed Syrian opposition fighters on a pick up truck, drive past a graffiti of modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk as they cross the border between Turkey and Syria, in Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, October 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

What the Turks get

In return for the ceasefire, the Turks will get what they have wanted all along: control of the safe zone in Syria and, if the ceasefire holds, a halt to the economic sanctions that Trump announced Monday when he warned that he could obliterate Turkey’s economy.

The US withdrawal

There were mixed signals Thursday over what the agreement means for US forces that began a withdrawal from Syria earlier this week as fighting between the Turkish and Kurdish forces escalated and began to threaten the safety of American troops. US officials said the ongoing withdrawal was continuing and would probably take a couple of weeks.

Pence reiterated that, as Trump has said, the US will not have “military personnel on the ground,” but other diplomatic and humanitarian aid would go on. He also said that the US will “facilitate” the orderly withdrawal of the Kurdish forces from the safe zone that is already beginning. And Trump said the US will continue to watch the Islamic State, and that the Kurdish fighters will control that monitoring with US supervision. Pentagon officials did not provide an explanation of how that would work.

Islamic State jihadists

As the US withdraws, a fundamental question is what the battle to prevent a re-emergence of the Islamic State will look like. US officials have provided little guidance, but they note that the US can, if needed, launch strikes from bases in Iraq near the Syria border. In addition, the US is leaving, at least for now, 200 to 300 troops at the Al Tanf base in southern Syria.

A Kurdish security officer, right, escorts Alexanda Amon Kotey, left, and El Shafee Elsheikh, center, allegedly among four British jihadis who made up a brutal Islamic State cell dubbed ‘The Beatles,’ at a security center in Kobani, Syria, Friday, March 30, 2018. ‘The Beatles’ terror cell is believed to have captured, tortured and killed hostages including American, British and Japanese journalists and aid workers. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Islamic State prisoners

One of the biggest threats in the conflict has been the potential that thousands of imprisoned IS fighters could escape. Kurdish forces have been guarding the prisons, but some fighters have left to join the battle along the border. And shelling in some areas may have led to the escape of fewer than 100 detainees.

Trump said that the detained will be controlled by “different groups.” But he added that the US “will be watching. We will be in charge. And they will be under very, very powerful and strict control.” That may be hard to do if US troops are not physically in Syria.

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