Fighting continued early Friday in a northeast Syrian border town at the center of the fight between Turkey and Kurdish forces, despite a U.S.-brokered cease-fire that went into effect overnight.
A U.S.-brokered deal with Turkey to pause its campaign against Kurdish fighters in northern Syria appears to be largely holding on its first day, despite scattered reports of continued fighting.
An official from the Kurdish Red Crescent told NPR’s Daniel Estrin that there have been Turkish airstrikes on Friday, mostly centered around one border town, Ras al-Ayn. “There are some clashes we’re hearing about near a hospital where there are still some patients being treated,” Estrin says. A spokesperson for Turkish-backed forces described them as “minor clashes.”
President Trump said he spoke with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan Friday, who told him “there was minor sniper and mortar fire that was quickly eliminated.”
The deal was reached Thursday after more than five hours of negotiation between Erdogan and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence. It allows 120 hours for Kurdish YPG fighters to withdraw from the “safe zone” along Turkey’s border with Syria, without explicitly stating the size of the zone. After that safe zone is cleared, the agreement says Turkey’s military operation will be completely halted.
The YPG fighters have been crucial allies of the U.S. for years in the fight against ISIS. Turkey considers them terrorists linked to organizations inside Turkey that carry out attacks against the Turkish government.
On Friday, Erdogan stressed that Turkey is prepared to continue to fight.
“If the United States is able to keep the promises it gave us by Tuesday night, at the end of the 120-hour period, the issue of a safe zone will have been resolved,” the Turkish president said, according to The Associated Press. “But if this promise is not kept, without exception, the minute the 120 hours end, our Operation Peace Spring will resume from where it left off in an even more determined way.”
The U.S. has promised not to impose new sanctions on Turkey and to lift other sanctions imposed recently once the Turkish military operation is completely halted.
But the U.S. does not appear to have a significant role on the ground. U.S. forces had been in the process of withdrawing from northern Syria when the deal was announced. U.S. forces even bombed their main military base there to destroy any remaining ammunition. In a statement Friday, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said that “no U.S. ground forces will participate in the enforcement of this safe zone,” but will “remain in communication” with Turkey and Kurdish forces.
It’s also not clear whether the Kurdish forces are actually withdrawing from the border. Kurdish military leader Mazlum Kobani said Thursday that the forces would comply with the cease-fire, though he did not state whether they planned to move.
“Actually the deal gives Turkey everything it wants,” Estrin reported. The Turkish government wants to clear the area of Kurdish fighters and resettle up to 2 million Syrian refugees there.
The deal itself is drawing criticism from major international players such as European Council President Donald Tusk. As the AP reported, he described it as “not a cease-fire, it is a demand for the capitulation of the Kurds.”
The Turkish offensive began after President Trump suddenly announced the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the area last week, following a call with Erdogan. The shift in policy drew swift criticism from U.S. lawmakers in both parties.
“It was unconventional what I did,” Trump said at a rally on Thursday. “I said, they’re going to have to fight a little while. … Like two kids in a lot, you’ve got to let them fight and then you pull them apart.”
Brett McGurk, Trump’s former envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIS, called that “an obscene and ignorant statement.”
“The reality is that we are now leaving Syria in the most shambolic way imaginable,” he said in an interview with NPR. He said that by leaving Syria, the U.S. has forfeited much of its ability to influence the situation on the ground.
“I think the Americans, at this point, are a sideshow,” McGurk said. “And I think anyone who thinks that we can meaningfully control or influence this situation is mistaken. We might be able to buy some pauses here and there, but this will now be worked out by other powers as we evacuate the country.”