This article was published in Arab News on October 21, 2019
Unanswered questions in the Syrian cease-fire deal
DUBAI: A paradigm change has taken place in Turkey’s operations in Syria. It began with a letter sent on Oct. 9 by US President Donald Trump to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. For a communication between two heads of state, this letter’s style will probably go into the annals of diplomatic correspondence as unprecedented.
“Let’s work out a good deal,” Trump wrote . “You don’t want to be responsible for slaughtering thousands of people, and I don’t want to be responsible for destroying the Turkish economy — and I will. I’ve already given you a little sample with respect to Pastor Brunson.”
On the day the letter was delivered, Erdogan launched a military operation in northeast Syria, which attained most of its targets within a week. This quick success prompted the US to send a delegation to Ankara headed by Vice-President Mike Pence, and the result was a 13-point agreement providing for a five-day cease-fire when the Kurdish fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are expected to remove their heavy weapons from the area.
In return, Pence said the US would withdraw sanctions against Turkey and impose no additional ones. The US has given Turkey such promises several times before, but each time the administration threw the ball into the court of Congress and washed its hands.
The 13-point agreement, if implemented properly, may solve a major problem in northeast Syria, but leaves several questions unanswered.
One is the geographical scope of the agreement. James Jeffrey, the special presidential envoy for the anti-Daesh coalition and a member of the Pence delegation, said the territory to the east and west of the area now held by Turkish forces was not covered, thus reducing the area to be evacuated to that already held by the Turkish army. Turkey, however, insists on extending its control all along the border from Kobane to the Iraqi border, a distance of 380km.
The second question is what to call the cease-fire. Turkey calls it a “pause” in the fight, because a cease-fire can be agreed only between two entities of the same level, and the state will not agree on a cease-fire with a group it views as terrorists.
There are rumors that, after the US “betrayal,” the SDF could be incorporated into the Syrian army to fight against the Turkish army; the disputed territory is, after all, Syrian land, and if Turkey is to honor its commitments to Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, it will have to be returned.
Third is the definition of a terrorist. The agreement says “counter-terrorism operations must target only terrorists and their hideouts, shelters, emplacements, weapons, vehicles and equipment.” The main aim of Turkey’s military operation is to eliminate the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which it considers terrorists, while the US does not.
Fourth is the withdawal of the Kurds’ heavy weapons. The agreement provides for this, along with the disablement of YPG fortifications and all other fighting positions, but it does not explain how it will be achieved.
Turkey says it will resume fighting if the US does not fulfill its guarantee to have Syrian Kurdish fighters out of the safe zone by Tuesday night. It is unclear who will make the final determination that this has happened. The SDF may expect Turkey to seek a pretext to resume the hostilities.
The most important parts missing from the equation are Russia and the Assad regime. Erdogan will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi on Tuesday, the deadline for the withdrawal of the Kurds’ heavy weapons. The two leaders will probably sort this question out then.
The Assad regime’s position is also important, because it is negotiating a cooperation agreement with the SDF. There are rumors that, after the US “betrayal,” the SDF could be incorporated into the Syrian army to fight against the Turkish army; the disputed territory is, after all, Syrian land, and if Turkey is to honor its commitments to Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, it will have to be returned.
No matter the ultimate outcome of this agreement, this paradigm change opens a window of opportunity. It is up to the participants to make the most of it.