ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — The U.S. and Turkey agreed Thursday to a cease-fire in the Turks' deadly attacks on Kurdish fighters in northern Syria, requiring the Kurds to vacate the area in an arrangement that largely solidifies Turkey's position and aims in the weeklong conflict. The deal includes a conditional halt to American economic sanctions.
After negotiations with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence hailed the five-day ceasefire as the way to end the bloodshed caused by Turkey's invasion. He remained silent on whether it amounted to a second abandonment of America's former Kurdish allies in the fight against the Islamic State.
Turkish troops and Turkish-backed Syrian fighters launched their offensive against Kurdish forces in northern Syria a week ago, two days after President Donald Trump suddenly announced that he was withdrawing the U.S. military from the area. Trump was widely criticized for turning on the Kurds, who had taken heavy casualties as partners with the U.S. in fighting Islamic State extremists since 2016.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the U.S. had accepted the idea of a "safe zone" long pushed by Turkey, and he insisted that Turkish armed forces will control the zone in far northeastern Syria. He also made clear that Turkey will not stop at a previously limited zone, and he said Turkish control of the Syrian side of the border must extend all the way to the Iraqi border.
The commander of Kurdish-led forces in Syria, Mazloum Abdi, told Kurdish TV, "We will do whatever we can for the success of the cease-fire agreement." But he said the agreement was "just the beginning," adding that "the Turkish occupation will not continue."
Trump had no reservations, hailing "a great day for civilization."
"Everybody agreed to things that three days ago, they would have never agreed to," he told reporters. "That includes the Kurds. The Kurds are now much more inclined to do what has to be done. Turkey is much more inclined to do what has to be done."
Trump seemed to endorse the Turkish aim of ridding the Syrian side of the border of the Kurdish fighters, whom Turkey deems to be terrorists but whom the U.S. has relied on for years. "They had to have it cleaned out," he said.
Leading U.S. lawmakers were less pleased than Trump.
Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, the Republicans' presidential nominee in 2012, said he welcomed the cease-fire but wanted to know what America's role in the region would be and why Turkey was facing no consequences for its invasion.
"Further, the cease-fire does not change the fact that America has abandoned an ally," he said on the Senate floor.
It was not clear whether the deal means that the U.S. military will play a role in enabling or enforcing the cease-fire. Pence said the U.S. would "facilitate" the Kurds' pullout but did not say if that would include the use of American troops.
As Pence was speaking in Ankara, U.S. troops were continuing to board aircraft leaving northern Syria. Officials said several hundred had already departed, with hundreds more consolidated at a few bases waiting to move out.
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Trump confidant who has criticized the president's pullout, said he thinks U.S. troops will be needed to implement and enforce a halt to the fighting.
"There's just no way around it," he said. "We need to maintain control of the skies" and work with the Kurds.
While the cease-fire seemed likely to temporarily slow legislation in Congress aimed at punishing Turkey and condemning Trump's U.S. troop withdrawal, lawmakers gave no sign of completely dropping the measures.
Shortly before the announcement of the pause in hostilities, Graham and Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., introduced legislation that would bar U.S. military aid to Turkey, seek to curb foreign arms sales to Ankara and impose sanctions on top Turkish officials unless Turkey withdraws its forces. In contrast with Pence's description of a limited safe zone, the deal would effectively create a zone controlled by the Turkish military that Ankara wants to stretch for the entire border from the Euphrates River to the Iraqi border, though the agreement did not spell that out. Turkish forces control about a quarter of that length, captured in the past nine days.
The rest is held by the Kurdish-led forces or by the Syrian regime's military, backed by Russia, which the Kurds invited to move in to shield them from the Turks. None of those parties has much reason to let Turkish forces into the area.
Brett McGurk, the former civilian head of the administration's U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State, wrote on Twitter that the deal was a gift to the Turks.
"The US just ratified Turkey's plan to effectively extend its border 30km into Syria with no ability to meaningfully influence facts on the ground." He also called the arrangement "non-implementable."