Ankara agrees to pause its offensive in Syria

Under the condition US to facilitate Kurdish withdrawal from what Turkey terms a 'safe zone'

Photo: Xinhua Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shakes hands with US Vice President Mike Pence in Ankara, 17 October.

Although the US and Turkey have agreed on 17 October to a cease-fire of the Turks' deadly attacks on Kurdish fighters in northern Syria, shelling and gunfire were heard around the northeast Syrian town of Ras al-Ain, by the Turkish border, on Friday. Agencies reported seeing continued fighting in this Syrian town at the centre of the fight between Turkey and Kurdish forces, which have also been reported by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor. There were reports machine-gun firing and shelling could be heard and smoke rose from one part of the Syrian town.

The truce was announced some 13 hours earlier by US Vice President Mike Pence after talks in Ankara with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey agreed to the five-day pause to let the Kurdish-led SDF militia withdraw from a “safe zone” Ankara had sought to capture.

Trump hails the deal, but critics say it mainly fulfils Ankara's goals. If implemented, the deal would achieve all the main objectives Turkey announced when it launched its assault on 9 October: control of a strip of Syria more than 30 kilometres deep, with the SDF forces obliged to pull out.

The fighting Friday came even after the commander of Kurdish-led forces in Syria, Mazloum Abdi, told Kurdish TV late on 17 October: “We will do whatever we can for the success of the cease-fire agreement.” But one Kurdish official, Razan Hiddo, declared that the Kurdish people would refuse to live under Turkish “occupation”.

It is still unclear whether the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) will comply with the agreement, which would leave Turkish forces in charge of a swathe of territory that the Kurds once held with US military support. Kurdish fighters have already been driven out of much - but not all - of a swath of territory that stretches about 100 kilometres along the middle of the Syrian-Turkish border, between Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad. The deal's effect was largely seen as to mitigate a foreign policy crisis considered to be of Trump's own making. Turkish troops and their allied Syrian fighters launched the offensive two days after Trump suddenly announced he was withdrawing American troops from the border area.

President Trump on 16 October said the United States was “going to try to work it out” with Turkey regarding its assault into northeastern Syria, but US sanctions would be “devastating” if discussions with Ankara do not go well. Meanwhile, the Syrian army entered one of the most hotly contested cities, filling a void created by Trump's abrupt retreat. Following a phone call with Erdogan, who has rejected calls for ceasefire or mediation, Trump dispatched top aides including Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Ankara for emergency talks to try to persuade Turkey to halt the offensive. A day earlier, Erdogan said Turkey would end its operation when Kurdish forces withdraw from the “safe zone”, adding that “no power” can deter Ankara's operation until it reaches its goals. He dismissed US sanctions and rejected a global chorus of calls to halt the offensive. US sanctions include reimposing steel tariffs and halting talks on a $100bn trade deal.

Abandoned in the middle of the battlefield, the Kurds turned to Assad and Russia for protection and announced on the night of 13 October that Syrian government troops would be deployed in Kurdish-controlled towns and villages along the border to help repel the Turkish advance. The assault has created a new humanitarian crisis in Syria with 200,000 civilians taking flight, according to UN.

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