Deal between US, Turkey spawns more questions than answers
WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump hailed it as a great day for civilization, but the agreement hammered out Thursday in Ankara between U.S. and Turkish leaders spawned more questions than answers.
The deal calls for a five-day pause in fighting between Turkish and Kurdish fighters and puts at least a temporary halt to the battle along the Syrian border. It also gives the Turks the 20-mile-deep safe zone in Syria that leaders in Ankara have sought for months. But what it means for U.S. forces currently withdrawing from Syria remained unclear.
A look at the key provisions of the deal and remaining uncertainties:
A U.S. delegation led by Vice President Mike Pence met with Turkish leaders, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for more than four hours Thursday and agreed to the five-day cease-fire in the Turkish assault on Kurdish fighters in northern Syria. The arrangement says the Syrian Kurdish fighters will withdraw out of what has been called a safe zone that is about 20-miles deep into Syria and stretches across about 125 kilometers (78 miles) of the central portion of the border between the two countries.
But almost immediately there were disagreements over what to call the deal and what it meant. Pence and Trump routinely referred to it as a cease-fire. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu rejected that term and called it a "pause" in fighting, because he said cease-fires are only possible between "two legitimate sides." Cavusoglu also said that the Turks would only halt their operation "after the terrorist elements depart" from northeast Syria.
What also remained unclear is what the Turkish-backed militias of Syrian fighters will do and how much control the Turkish military will have or try to exert over them.
WHAT THE TURKS GET
In return for the cease-fire, the Turks will get what they have wanted all along: control of the safe zone in Syria and, if the cease-fire holds, a halt to the economic sanctions that Trump announced Monday when he warned that he could obliterate Turkey's economy.
THE U.S. WITHDRAWAL
There were mixed signals Thursday over what the agreement means for U.S. forces that began a withdrawal from Syria earlier this week as fighting between the Turkish and Kurdish forces escalated and began to threaten the safety of American troops. U.S. officials said the ongoing withdrawal was continuing and would probably take a couple of weeks.
Pence reiterated that, as Trump has said, the U.S. will not have "military personnel on the ground," but other diplomatic and humanitarian aid would go on. He also said that the U.S. will "facilitate" the orderly withdrawal of the Kurdish forces from the safe zone that is already beginning. And Trump said the U.S. will continue to watch the Islamic State, and that the Kurdish fighters will control that monitoring with U.S. supervision. Pentagon officials did not provide an explanation of how that would work.
ISLAMIC STATE GROUP
As the U.S. withdraws, a fundamental question is what the battle to prevent a re-emergence of the Islamic State will look like. U.S. officials have provided little guidance, but they note that the U.S. can, if needed, launch strikes from bases in Iraq near the Syria border. In addition, the U.S. is leaving, at least for now, 200 to 300 troops at the Al Tanf base in southern Syria.
ISLAMIC STATE PRISONERS
One of the biggest threats in the conflict has been the potential that thousands of imprisoned IS fighters could escape. Kurdish forces have been guarding the prisons, but some fighters have left to join the battle along the border. And shelling in some areas may have led to the escape of fewer than 100 detainees.
Trump said that the detained will be controlled by "different groups." But he added that the U.S. "will be watching. We will be in charge. And they will be under very, very powerful and strict control." That may be hard to do if U.S. troops are not physically in Syria.