Ankara announced a five-day (120 hour) ceasefire on Thursday evening after a meeting between Erdogan and US Vice President Mike Pence. The US committed to assist the “orderly withdrawal” of the Kurds from a so-called safe zone 30 kilometers deep into Syrian territory, while the United States, which have withdrawn from Rojava in recent days, will “continue to engage,” but “not militarily.” Kobane, a symbol of Kurdish resistance against the Caliphate, seems to be safe, at least according to Pence. Nothing was said, however, about the presence of Syrian and Russian troops which have entered the north of Syria.
The Syrians have come in order to protect the Kurds, while the Russians have played the role of a kind of “buffer” between the warring armies. There have been many ceasefires in Syria over the past few years, most of which were broken and most of which had rather confusing terms. But this Turkish ceasefire in Rojava that was suddenly announced Thursday is among the most cryptic and obscure.
The Americans are officially talking about a “ceasefire,” while the Turkish foreign minister refused to use this word, calling it a mere “pause” in military operations. Sources in Ankara also added that “we got exactly what we wanted.” In this situation, differences in terminology can have serious consequences, as there have been hundreds of deaths among Kurdish fighters and civilians already, as well as tens of thousands of refugees.
With his anti-Kurdish offensive, Erdogan had mocked Trump, humiliated NATO and Europe and was getting ready to meet with Putin in Sochi on Tuesday, after Russia and the troops of Bashar al-Assad entered the field in northern Syria to protect the Kurds. Then, in a theatrical turn of events, the Reìs Erdogan suddenly agreed to a five-day halt to the hostilities in a meeting with US Vice-President Pence and Secretary of State Pompeo, after he had said he wouldn’t even meet with them just a few hours before.
In short, he went from treating the American envoys in an insulting manner to making a deal with them: this shows just how unpredictable and unmanageable Erdogan himself has become, at least on par with his counterpart, Donald Trump.
At first glance, the document signed seems to outline a “cohabitation” agreement for Rojava, which would have the Turkish military, (perhaps) American observers and the recently deployed Syrian and Russian forces in the same area, or very close to each other. But the issue is far from clear, and this interpretation might be incorrect. The only certainty arising from the document is that the Kurds must go away.
“We got what we wanted,” Turkish officials said, adding that Ankara’s troops are set to enter the so-called “safe zone” at the end of the ceasefire. In a nutshell, this appears to be a revival of the previous agreement reached some time ago by the United States and Turkey, the notorious “Security Mechanism” which involved joint patrols between Turkish and US soldiers. According to the terms of that agreement, the Kurds, trusting the assurances given by the US, dismantled their fortifications—however, Turkey decided to mount an invasion after the shameful retreat of the Marines.
According to this latest agreement, the US are supposed to facilitate the “orderly withdrawal” of Kurdish troops. What this means in practice is not yet very clear: will the Americans return to the area with their own troops? Pence seemed to rule out this possibility for now.
Many questions remain: what will the troops sent by Damascus do, after the regime reached its own agreement with the Kurds for protection? And what will be the course of action decided by Putin? Russia could remain on the margins of the security zone as a buffer force; or could the Russians and Syrians also agree to contribute to the “orderly withdrawal” of the Kurds, whom Ankara considers to be terrorists? These two possibilities are not mutually exclusive, but obviously mean very different things for the fate of the region. For now, Erdogan doesn’t appear to have any intention to acknowledge that Damascus should have a say in what happens in this “buffer area,” which he seems to consider rightfully Turkish territory which somehow ended up in Syrian hands.
The conclusion is inescapable: there is simply no way out for Syria. As soon as one tries to put one conflict to rest, another front immediately opens up. This is truly a piecemeal World War, where a ceasefire, or “pause,” or any kind of break in hostilities will almost never mean peace, but rather a time of preparation for the next blood-soaked chapters of the story.
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