Pence says Turkey, U.S. have agreed to ceasefire in Syria

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, shakes hands with U.S Vice President Mike Pence, prior to their talks at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey, Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019. A high level U.S. delegation arrived in Turkey on Thursday for talks on a cease-fire in Syria. (Presidential Press Service via AP, Pool)

After an hours-long meeting, Vice President Mike Pence announced on Thursday afternoon that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has agreed to a ceasefire in northern Syria.

The vice president said Turkey would pause its invasion for 120 hours in order to allow Kurdish allies to withdraw from the safe zone of the border region.

Pence traveled to Turkey, along with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, after reports that Erdogan had thrown a letter from President Trump urging Turkey not to invade Syria in the trash.

American reporters traveling with the vice president were kept away from the meetings, being allowed in only for a very brief photo opportunity. Reporters were told they could not ask questions, per an agreement with the Turks. At least one journalist tried to ask a question anyhow.

The White House disclosed on Wednesday that Mr. Trump had both cajoled and threatened Erdogan in an unusual letter last week, urging him to act only in “the right and humane way” in Syria. The letter was sent the day Erdogan launched a major offensive against the Kurds in Syria.

Mr. Trump started on a positive note by suggesting they “work out a good deal,” but then talked about crippling economic sanctions and concluded that the world “will look upon you forever as the devil if good things don’t happen. Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!”

Turkish state media reported on Thursday that Erdogan discarded the letter from Mr. Trump after reading it and began the Syrian offensive that day. The BBC later confirmed this reporting.

Mr. Trump declared on Wednesday that the U.S. has no stake in defending Kurdish fighters who died by the thousands as America’s partners against Islamic State extremists.

Pence, heading a U.S. delegation that includes Pompeo and White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien, arrived in Turkey on Thursday, a day after Mr. Trump dismissed the very crisis he sent his aides on an emergency mission to mitigate.

Mr. Trump suggested Wednesday that a Kurdish group was a greater terror threat than the Islamic State group, and he welcomed the efforts of Russia and the Assad government to fill the void left after he ordered the removal of nearly all U.S. troops from Syria amid a Turkish assault on the Kurds.

“Syria may have some help with Russia, and that’s fine,” Mr. Trump said. “They’ve got a lot of sand over there. So, there’s a lot of sand that they can play with.”

He added: “Let them fight their own wars.”

The split-screen foreign policy moment proved difficult to reconcile and came during perhaps the darkest moment for the modern U.S.-Turkey relationship and a time of trial for Mr. Trump and his Republican Party allies. Severe condemnation of Mr. Trump’s failure to deter Erdogan’s assault on the Kurds and his subsequent embrace of Turkish talking points about the former U.S. allies sparked bipartisan outrage in the U.S. and calls for swift punishment of the NATO ally.

Republicans and Democrats in the House, bitterly divided over the Trump impeachment inquiry, banded together for an overwhelming 354-60 denunciation of the U.S. troop withdrawal, with 129 Republicans joining all of the Democrats in the vote on resolution. Many lawmakers expressed worry that the withdrawal may lead to revival of the Islamic State group as well as greater Russian influence and presence in the area, besides the slaughter of many Kurds.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell publicly broke with Mr. Trump to call the U.S. relationship with the Kurds “a great alliance.”

“I’m sorry that we are where we are. I hope the vice president and the secretary of state can somehow repair the damage,” McConnell said Wednesday.

Even among top administration officials, there were concerns that the trip lacked achievable goals and had been undermined by Trump even before it began. While Erdogan faces global condemnation for the invasion, he also sees renewed nationalistic fervor at home, and any path to de-escalation likely would need to be approached delicately in order to avoid embarrassing Erdogan domestically. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal thinking.

Mr. Trump did place some sanctions on Turkey for the offensive. But he appeared to undercut his delegation’s negotiating stance, saying the U.S. has no business in the region — and not to worry about the Kurdish fighters.

“If Turkey goes onto Syria, that’s between Turkey and Syria, it’s not between Turkey and the United States,” Mr. Trump said during an Oval Office meeting with Italian President Sergio Mattarella.

As he seeks to push Erdogan to agree to a ceasefire, Pence will confront doubts about American credibility and his own, as an emissary of an inconsistent president.

“Given how erratic President Trump’s decision-making process and style has been, it’s just hard to imagine any country on the receiving end of another interlocutor really being confident that what Pence and Pompeo are delivering reflects Trump’s thinking at the moment or what it will be in the future,” said Jeffrey Prescott, the Obama administration’s senior director for Iran, Iraq, Syria and the Gulf states on the National Security Council and a former deputy national security adviser to former Vice President Joe Biden.

The withdrawal is the worst decision of Trump’s presidency, said Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who meets often with the president and is one of his strongest and most important supporters in Congress.

“To those who think the Mideast doesn’t matter to America, remember 9/11 — we had that same attitude on 9/10/2001,” Graham said

Even before Mr. Trump’s comments, Erdogan had publicly stated that he will be undeterred by the sanctions and resisted calls for a ceasefire Wednesday, saying the fighting would end only if Kurdish fighters abandoned their weapons and retreated from positions near the Turkish border. If Pence can persuade Turkey to agree to a ceasefire, which few U.S. officials believed is likely, experts warn it would not erase the signal Trump’s action sent to American allies across the globe or the opening already being exploited by Russia in the region.

“Deterring an action that hasn’t yet been taken is almost always easier than trying to coerce someone to reverse an action that they’ve already committed blood, treasure and honor to,” said John Hannah, former national security adviser for former Vice President Dick Cheney and a senior counselor for Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

In public appearances, Mr. Trump said he was fulfilling a campaign promise to bring U.S. troops home from “endless wars” in the Middle East, casting aside criticism that a sudden U.S. withdrawal from Syria betrays the Kurdish fighters, stains U.S. credibility around the world and opens an important region to Russia and Iran.

“We have a situation where Turkey is taking land from Syria. Syria’s not happy about it. Let them work it out,” Mr. Trump said. “They have a problem at a border. It’s not our border. We shouldn’t be losing lives over it.”

Turkish troops and Turkish-backed Syrian fighters launched their offensive against Kurdish forces in northern Syria a week ago, two days after Mr. Trump suddenly announced he was withdrawing the U.S. from the area. Erdogan has said he wants to create a “safe zone” 30 kilometers deep in Syria.

Ankara has long argued the Kurdish fighters are nothing more than an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which has waged a guerrilla campaign inside Turkey since the 1980s and which Turkey, as well as the U.S. and European Union, designate as a terrorist organization.

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