US Vice-President Mike Pence arrives at a media conference at the US embassy in Ankara, Turkey, October 17 2019. Picture: ADEM ALTAN/AFP
US Vice-President Mike Pence arrives at a media conference at the US embassy in Ankara, Turkey, October 17 2019. Picture: ADEM ALTAN/AFP

Ankara  — Turkey agreed on Thursday to pause its offensive in Syria for five days to let Kurdish forces withdraw from a "safe zone" Ankara had sought to capture, in a deal hailed by the Trump administration and cast by Turkey as a complete victory.

The truce was announced by US Vice-President Mike Pence after talks in Ankara with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and was swiftly hailed by President Donald Trump, who said it would save "millions of lives".

But if implemented it would achieve all the main objectives Turkey announced when it launched the assault eight days ago: control of a strip of Syria more than 30km  deep, with the Kurdish YPG militia, formerly close US allies, obliged to pull out.

"The safe zone will be primarily enforced by the Turkish Armed Forces," a joint US-Turkish statement released after the talks said.

US senators who have criticised the Trump administration for failing to halt the Turkish assault said they would press ahead with plans for legislation to impose sanctions against Turkey despite the ceasefire announcement.

A Turkish official said Ankara got "exactly what we wanted" from the talks with the US. Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu described it as a pause, solely to allow the Kurdish fighters to withdraw.

Kurdish fighters would be forced to give up their heavy weapons and their positions would be destroyed, Cavusoglu said. He declined to call the agreement a "ceasefire", saying ceasefires could be agreed only by legitimate sides, and not by a Kurdish militia that Turkey considers a terrorist group.

"When the terrorist elements completely leave the safe zone, we can stop the operation," Cavusoglu said.

The joint declaration said Washington and Ankara would cooperate on handling Islamic State fighters and family members held in prisons and camps, a major international concern.

Kurdish response 

Pence said Washington had already been in contact with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which had agreed to withdraw and were already pulling out.

However, the Kurdish position was not clear.

Aldar Xelil, a leading Syrian Kurdish politician, said the Kurds would soon issue a statement. He said the Kurds had rejected the Turkish safe zone in the past. They would abide by the ceasefire but would defend themselves, he said.

Pence said that once the pause became permanent, Washington would go ahead with its own plans to withdraw its entire military force from northern Syria, which had partnered with the Kurds to fight against Islamic State.

Trump tweeted: "Great news out of Turkey. Thank you to Erdogan," Trump said. "Millions of lives will be saved!"

"Today the US and Turkey have agreed to a ceasefire in Syria," Pence told a news conference after more than four hours of talks at the presidential palace in Ankara.

"The Turkish side will pause Operation Peace Spring in order to allow for the withdrawal of YPG forces from the safe zone for 120 hours," Pence said. "All military operations under Operation Peace Spring will be paused, and Operation Peace Spring will be halted entirely on completion of the withdrawal."

The deal struck with Erdogan also provided for Turkey not to engage in military operations in the flashpoint Syrian border town of Kobani, Pence said. Cavusoglu said Turkey had given no commitments about Kobani.

Humanitarian crisis

Pence added that he had spoken to Trump after the talks and that Trump had expressed his gratitude for the ceasefire accord. Washington's main goal had been to halt the violence, and it had succeeded, Pence said.

The Turkish assault has created a new humanitarian crisis in Syria with 200,000 civilians taking flight, a security alert over thousands of Islamic State fighters potentially abandoned in Kurdish jails, and a political battle at home for Trump.

Trump has been accused of abandoning Kurdish-led fighters, Washington's main partners in the battle to dismantle Islamic State's self-declared caliphate in Syria, by withdrawing troops from the border as Ankara launched its offensive on October 9.

The US House of Representatives had condemned his policy on Wednesday in a vote backed by a majority of his fellow Republicans as well as Democrats.

The Turkish assault began after Trump moved US troops out of the way following a phone call with Erdogan. Trump announced sanctions on Turkey following the launch of the assault, but his opponents said these were too mild to have an impact.

Pence said the sanctions would now be lifted once the ceasefire became permanent.

If successful, the deal could smooth over a major rift between Washington and Turkey, its main Muslim ally in Nato. 

But the US withdrawal also leaves Russia and Iran in a far stronger position in Syria. The Kurds responded to the announcement of the US withdrawal by effectively switching allegiances and have already invited forces of the Syrian government, backed by Moscow and Tehran, into towns and cities in areas they control

Reports said Erdogan will meet his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin in Russia on October 22.

Reuters