Russia and Turkey agreed Tuesday to cooperate in removing Syrian Kurdish fighters from a wide swath of territory just south of Turkey’s border, in a deal that cemented Russian President Vladimir Putin’s preeminent role in Syria as U.S. troops depart and America’s influence wanes.
The agreement, reached after an hours-long meeting between Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi, will leave Turkey and Russia in control of territory formerly held by Kurdish forces once allied with the United States.
More importantly, though, the deal bolstered Russia’s preferred endgame in Syria’s civil war by allowing its ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad, to regain control over more of his country’s territory. Russia is also prodding states in the region to recognize, either explicitly or tacitly, the Syrian government’s authority, analysts said.
The Turkey-Russia agreement came as the deadline expired on a separate deal Turkey made last week with the United States to “pause” its advance into Syria in preparation for a full cease fire. In exchange, the United States agreed initially to clear Syrian Kurdish fighters from a strip about 75 miles long and 20 miles deep along the border – and to lift existing sanctions on Turkey and refrain from imposing more.
Hours after the expiration, a senior Trump administration official said that Kurdish leaders had confirmed their withdrawal from that portion of the border, and that Turkey was believed to have stopped its southern advance. Although discussions were still underway in Washington, the official indicated that sanctions would not go forward.
“Good news seems to be happening with respect to Turkey, Syria and the Middle East,” President Donald Trump tweeted Tuesday evening. “Further reports to come later!”
The deal concluded with Russia formalizing the cast of actors who will decide northern Syria’s future. Russia and Turkeywould start removing Kurdish militias from a far larger part of the border, extending hundreds of miles from the Euphrates River to Iraq and more than 20 miles deep, beginning at noon Wednesday, according to the agreement. Once they were gone, it stipulated, Turkey and Russia would begin jointly patrolling the border region.
Mervan Qamishlo, a spokesman for the Kurdish-led militias, said Tuesday that his group had withdrawn from the Syrian towns of Ras al-Ayn and Tel Abyad – the parameters of the earlier U.S. agreement – to a distance more than 20 miles from Turkey. He did not respond to requests for comment on the Russian-Turkish agreement.
The deal reached in Sochi came two weeks after Turkey launched a military offensive in northern Syria that the United States had long sought to stave off. The operation targeted the Kurdish-led militia, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which was the principal U.S. partner in the fight against the Islamic State extremist group.
A telephone call between Erdogan and Trump, a few days before the offensive, was widely seen as the green light for Turkey’s offensive: Shortly after the call, the White House announced that it was withdrawing most of its remaining 1,000 troops from Syria, removing a major obstacle for Turkey. The Trump administration, denying it had approved the offensive, threatened sanctions.
But the fallout had already begun. Turkey began air and artillery strikes on SDF positions as Turkish-allied Syrian rebels joined the battle on the ground. Within days, tens of thousands of people were forced to flee their homes in Syria and dozens of people on both sides of the border were killed in the fighting.
The White House, battered by criticism it had abandoned its Kurdish allies, last week dispatched Vice President Mike Pence to Ankara, Turkey’s capital, in a desperate attempt to persuade Erdogan to halt the military offensive. But the announced withdrawal of troops gave the administration little leverage, and the agreement that emerged from Pence’s meeting with Erdogan effectively blessed Turkey’s actions.
On Monday, a large convoy of U.S. military vehicles crossed Syria’s border with Iraq in the most visible manifestation of the U.S. policy shift in the region. On Tuesday, Iraq’s military said the newly arrived U.S. forces would have to leave, adding to the sense of harried disarray. “There is no agreement for these forces to stay in Iraq,” an Iraqi military statement said.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper stressed Tuesday that the troops would stay only temporarily in Iraq, appearing to back away from an earlier statement saying they would continue to assist in fighting the Islamic State from there.
Speaking to reporters during a trip to Saudi Arabia, Esper said that “the aim isn’t to stay in Iraq interminably.”
“The aim is to pull our soldiers out and eventually get them back home,” he said.
Iraq’s deputy prime minister and finance minister, Fuad Hussein, speaking Monday to reporters during a visit to Washington, said Iraq would permit foreign forces to use its territory to launch attacks only on the Islamic State.
In Washington, lawmakers of both parties continued to criticize the administration’s seemingly ad hoc policy maneuvers. Several bipartisan bills were introduced demanding that the United States sanction Turkey. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he had introduced a resolution denouncing Turkey’s invasion of Syria and calling for Trump to halt the U.S. troop withdrawal.
James Jeffrey, the administration’s special envoy for Syria, was battered by lawmakers at a Senate hearing. Asked repeatedly whether he, as the policy specialist, had been consulted or informed of the troop withdrawal decision, Jeffrey said he had not, but repeated the administration’s denial that Trump had approved the Turkish incursion.
Republicans and Democrats alike dismissed Jeffrey’s insistence that U.S. goals in Syria – to prevent an Islamic State resurgence, to remove Assad’s Iranian allies from the country, and to establish a working democracy in Syria – remained intact.
“I have the greatest respect for you,” Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., told the envoy, “but one can try to put lipstick on a pig but it’s still a pig. One can try to call capitulation a victory, and it’s still capitulation.”
Noting reports of Islamic State prisoners escaping from Kurdish-run prisons in Syria, and the potential for militant seizure of Syrian oil fields, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., asked, “How much thought or preparation are you aware of that went into preventing those things from happening before the decision was made?”
Jeffrey said that most of the planning was done after Trump’s initial decision last December – also after a phone call with Erdogan, and without consulting with advisers – to withdraw what were then more than 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria. The president was ultimately persuaded to pull out only half the troops.
This time, “if you had been called . . . do you feel you could have laid out a plan that didn’t result in this advancement of the interests of Iran and Syria and Russia and [the Islamic State] that would have gotten our troops out of Syria?” asked Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.
“I would have tried,” Jeffrey said.
Esper, during an interview with CNN that aired later Tuesday, appeared to minimize concerns that the Islamic State could reconstitute itself because of Turkey’s incursion, a threat that several retired U.S. generals have amplified over the past week in interviews.
He said intelligence suggested that 11,000 detainees remain in prisons in northeast Syria. “We’ve only had reports of a little bit more than a hundred that have escaped,” Esper said. Jeffrey put the number at “dozens.”
During a news conference in Sochi on Tuesday, Putin said a “significant decision” had been reached but did not discuss its details, leaving that to Erdogan and the foreign ministers of Turkey and Russia, who spoke afterward.
One clause of the agreement referred to “joint efforts” to facilitate the return of refugees to Syria – a critical issue for Turkey, which hosts about 4 million Syrian refugees. But Erdogan’s proposal to send refugees to a “safe zone” in Syria has been criticized by human rights groups because few of the migrants hail from that area.
Russia hopes that the deal will lead to Turkey’s eventual recognition of Assad’s government, analysts said.
Erdogan, who has been one of Assad’s most vocal adversaries during Syria’s war, would have to prepare Turkey’s public for such recognition, according to Aaron Stein, the director of the Middle East program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. “He has already started to do that,” Stein added.
Turkey’s primary objective “was to push the U.S. out and to break the SDF as the governing entity and as the legitimate political and military actor in the Syrian space. And they did that,” he said.
“For Ankara, this is a rational decision. This may take Americans by surprise,” but the final deal was always going to be made with the Russians, he said.