White House

Pence says Turkey has agreed to cease fire in northern Syria

Trump has faced a bipartisan backlash over pulling U.S. troops from buffer zone along Turkey-Syria border

Smoke rises over the Syrian town of Ras al-Ain on Thursday as Turkish forces try to extend their control of more of northern Syria, which is currently held by Syrian Kurds. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence announced later Thursday that Turkey had agreed to a cease fire in the area. (Burak Kara/Getty Images)

Vice President Mike Pence announced on Thursday that a ceasefire agreement had been reached with the Turkish government that would allow for a cessation of fighting in northeast Syria where Syrian Kurds have been getting hammered for the last week.

Specifics of the ceasefire, which was to last for 120 hours, were initially scarce but Pence at a news conference in Ankara alongside Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said it was already being implemented.

The agreement appears to amount to the Syrian Kurds pulling back from some of their positions in northern Syria that are close to the Turkish border while the Turkish military halts its attacks on their positions.

“Turkey’s willingness to pause and embrace a ceasefire of military operations to enable us to see to that orderly withdrawal of YPG will, we believe, make it possible for that to occur. I know that it’s already underway as we speak,” Pence said, referring to the Syrian Kurdish fighters that the U.S. military has partnered with as part of a years-long effort to eradicate Islamic State positions in Syria and Iraq.

President Donald Trump told reporters in Texas that he will remove increased steel tariffs on Turkey once the ceasefire agreement has been formalized. He credited his own “unconventional, tough-love approach” to both sides for getting an agreement.

“It’s a great day for civilization,” Trump said.

Trump credited both sides for being amenable to a deal, but said Erdogan, who he noted his “great respect” for, and his country had a “legitimate problem" with some Kurdish elements in northern Syria.

“Without those rockets going back and forth ... you would have never been able to make this deal,” Trump said. But Democrats and foreign policy experts say that Turkey’s harsh military offensive would not have happened without the president’s decision to remove U.S. troops who were acting as a buffer.

The ceasefire is an initial step, Pence said, toward a longer-term plan for creating a buffer zone in northern Syria that would address the Turkish government’s concerns about the potential for Syrian Kurds to partner with Kurdish militant groups in Turkey.

“If there had not been a ceasefire today, there would have been a new round of massive sanctions on Turkey,” Pence said.

Turkey and the United States agreed that the safe-zone would include “the recollection of YPG heavy weapons and the disablement of fortifications and all other fighting positions,” according to a joint statement released by the U.S.

The safe zone will “primarily” be enforced by the Turkish military.

The agreement also includes a commitment by the Trump administration to “work and consult with Congress, as appropriate, to underline the progress being undertaken to achieve peace and security in Syria.”

Earlier this week, Trump raised tariffs on Turkish steel and sanctioned several key Turkish ministries, including the ministries of defense and energy. Those sanctions, however, would not go into effect for several weeks.

Pence said there would be no new sanctions imposed by the White House while the ceasefire is being implemented and strengthened.

Less clear is whether lawmakers will pause their own work on mandatory sanctions measures. There are no less than five proposed measures in the House and the Senate. Most of the sanctions proposals, some of which are still in a framework form, would impose harsh sanctions on the Turkish military.

Before announcement of the ceasefire agreement on Thursday, Republican and Democratic lawmakers made it clear they were pursuing their own sanctions independent of the White House because they did not think the measures undertaken by Trump went far enough.

House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y., who on Thursday officially introduced with panel ranking member Michael McCaul, R-Texas, a Turkey sanctions bill, said it was too early to tell if the ceasefire justified lawmakers backing off of their sanctions work.

“Let’s see if the ceasefire holds. Anybody can announce a ceasefire,” the New York Democrat said. “It’s a good sign but let’s see if it lasts.”

Florida Republican Rep. Michael Waltz, an Army veteran who fought with Kurdish forces in the region and has been critical of the administration’s withdrawal of U.S. troops, called the agreement a “step in the right direction,” but said it doesn’t make clear what the long-range U.S. plan is.

“Congress also has a role to play & we’ll watch closely to see how this unfolds,” he tweeted.

John T. Bennett and Michael Macagnone contributed to this report.

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