Correction: An earlier version of this story misquoted President Donald Trump regarding the conflict between Turkey and Kurdish fighters in Syria. The president said: “They have a problem with Turkey, they have a problem at a border. It's not our border.”
Turkey agreed to halt its military assault in Syria for five days, in a U.S.-brokered cease-fire that will allow Kurdish forces to withdraw from the Turkey-Syria border.
Critics said the agreement left many questions unanswered – including the fate of the Kurds – and was too little, too late. And Turkish officials disputed the term "ceasefire," saying instead they had agreed to a temporary suspension of their operation.
The deal was announced by Vice President Mike Pence, who landed in Turkey Thursday morning on a rescue mission to salvage American interests in Syria amid an increasingly chaotic geopolitical conflict and a fierce domestic bipartisan backlash.
"It will be a pause in military operations for 120 hours," Pence told reporters at a news conference Thursday after a four-hour meeting with Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The U.S. has already started to facilitate the withdrawal of the Syrian-Kurdish forces, known as the SDF, from a 20-mile safe zone, Pence said.
Once the Kurdish forces have withdrawn, the vice president said, Turkey has agreed to "a permanent ceasefire" and the U.S. will work with Erdogan's government to restore peace and stability to a region rocked by conflict and chaos.
President Donald Trump dispatched Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Ankara Wednesday to broker the deal a week after Turkish forces invaded northeastern Syria to attack the Kurds.
Lawmakers and foreign policy experts said Trump's initial decision to withdraw U.S. forces, which paved the way for Turkey's attack on the Kurds, has already caused enormous damage and Pence's announcement doesn't repair that.
"Today’s ceasefire is not a credit to Trump. He made an avoidable and massive strategic mistake that this doesn’t meaningfully mitigate," tweeted Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a hawkish Washington-based foreign policy research institute.
Others said the U.S. had seemingly negotiated the surrender of America's Kurdish allies.
"Let me get this straight: we brokered a cease-fire that has the US pushing Kurds out of area so that Turkey can control it," tweeted Kelly Magsamen, who served as a national security and defense official in Obama administration.
She and others said the deal raised a host of new questions, including what role, if any, the U.S. military will now play in Syria and where the Kurds will go once they have withdrawn from the 20-mile "safe zone" Pence outlined in announcing the deal.
“The Trump administration just capitulated to all of Turkey’s original demands after a week of violence and deep harm to America’s credibility in the world," Magsamen said. "If this is their idea of successful diplomacy, then we better hold onto our wallets when it comes on to China, Russia, Iran and North Korea.”
The cease-fire announcement caused confusion in Syria and seems unlikely to hold, according to a U.S. official who was not authorized to speak publicly. It remained unclear if the agreement affects Turkish regular troops and its paramilitary forces. The paramilitaries are expected to continue attacking the Kurds. If the Kurds counterattack, Turkey is likely to blame them and resume fighting, the official said.
Meanwhile, U.S. troops continue to withdraw from Syria and face danger from being accidentally struck by artillery rounds or bombs fired by the warring parties, the official said. The militias, undisciplined fighters with little accountability, could also target American forces.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who had condemned Trump's troop withdrawal, applauded the cease-fire but warned it’s just a first step.
It may stop the killing for now, he said, and give all the factions time to "reset the table" so Turkey stops threatening the Kurds, America's chief partner in the fight against the Islamic State.
But Graham said he’s still pushing Trump to keep U.S. troops in the region and this cease-fire does not address that.
Trump touted the deal in a tweet minutes after Pence's announcement, suggesting that his imposition of sanctions pushed Erdogan to reverse course.
"This deal could NEVER have been made 3 days ago. There needed to be some 'tough' love in order to get it done," Trump tweeted. "Great for everybody. Proud of all!"
But Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said Trump created the conflict by withdrawing 50 U.S. troops who had served as a bulwark against Turkey's assault on the Kurds. Now, Trump is claiming credit for a deal that still leaves the Kurds in jeopardy, he said.
"Anyone could create a deal with Turkey if the deal is we’re going to have the displacement of all the Kurds," Khanna said.
"The solution cannot be that Turkey and Syria carve up the region with Putin’s influence and that we forsake the Kurds," he added, saying Pence and Pompeo should have gone to Ankara two weeks ago, before Turkey began its incursion.
But Pence portrayed the agreement as a victory, saying it would bring an immediate end to the violence and that Turkey had promised to work with the U.S. to restore stability to northeast Syria.
James Jeffrey, the State Department’s special representative on Syria, also strongly defended the agreement as vital to halting Turkey’s march into Syria, which has already left civilians dead and caused thousands to flee.
Jeffrey said there’s no question the Kurds wanted to stay in that part of Syria, but said it was unrealistic to think they could withstand the Turkish onslaught.
“It is our assessment that they have no military ability to hold onto these areas and therefore we thought that a ceasefire would be much better … for trying to get some kind of control over this chaotic situation,” Jeffrey told reporters traveling with Pompeo. The diplomat was in the negotiations with Pence, Pompeo and Erdogan.
“The Turkish army has seized a great deal of territory in a very short period of time. We had no doubt that they would not continue seizing territory if we couldn’t get a ceasefire,” Jeffrey said.
Asked about Turkish statements disputing the deal was a “ceasefire,” Jeffrey conceded that term was not in the written pact.
“We use the word ceasefire, the Turks do not because it’s not in the agreement,” he said. But “a ceasefire is no forward movement of troops on the ground and no military action other than self-defense," he said, and that’s what Erdogan agreed to.
Turkey's incursion, which began shortly after Trump ordered the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the region, has unleashed a free-for-all inside that corner of Syria, with Russia, Iran and other powers vying for influence.
“We have a very convoluted situation with Russian, Syrian Army, Turkish, American, SDF and some (ISIS) elements all floating around in a very wild way," said Jeffrey. "And we’re most concerned about getting our troops out of the way which is what DOD is doing at this point."
In exchange for Erdogan's pause on military operations, Pence said the Trump administration agreed not to impose additional sanctions on Turkey. And once there is a permanent cease-fire in place, the U.S. will lift sanctions that Trump imposed on Turkey Monday, the vice president said.
Erdogan had initially rebuffed Trump's demand for a halt to the Turkish attack, shrugging off the White House's threats of crippling economic sanctions and saying he had no plans to pull back. Turkey views the Kurdish fighters – who helped U.S. forces battle the Islamic State – as terrorists because of their affiliation with an offshoot group known as the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or the PKK.
Trump on Wednesday seemed to distance himself from the crisis in Syria, even as he dispatched Pence and Pompeo to solve it.
“They have a problem with Turkey, they have a problem at a border," Trump said in the Oval Office on Wednesday. "It's not our border. We shouldn't be losing lives over it.”
Hours later, the House overwhelming passed a bipartisan resolution condemning Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, which critics said gave Erdogan a green light to invade territory held by the U.S.-allied Kurds. Trump's comments only seemed to further fuel the bipartisan backlash on Capitol Hill to his troop withdrawal decision.
"What the president said today is just outrageously dangerous,” Graham, normally a staunch Trump ally, said on Wednesday "It undercuts Pence and Pompeo. And I don’t agree with his construct that Turkey's invasion of Syria is of no concern."
Contributing: David Jackson, John Fritze, Tom Vanden Brook, and Christal Hayes
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mike Pence announces Turkey ceasefire in Kurdish area of Syria