'It's clear the US has been sidelined.' Turkey and Russia agree to joint patrols in Syria

Deirdre Shesgreen, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON – Russia and Turkey agreed Tuesday to take joint control of a vital strip of territory along the Syria-Turkey border, a victory for Moscow as the U.S. military continued its withdrawal from Syria. 

The pact between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkey's leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, came shortly before a U.S.-brokered cease-fire – which had temporarily halted a Turkish attack on Kurdish forces in Syria – expired Tuesday afternoon. 

The Putin-Erdogan deal gives Russia a crucial foothold in the Middle East amid a power vacuum created by the U.S. withdrawal. Under the agreement, Russia and Turkey agreed to work together to remove Kurdish fighters from a 20-mile zone in northern Syria. 

"Both Russia and Turkey got exactly what they want," Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said during a hearing on the Trump administration's policy Tuesday. 

During that hearing, President Donald Trump's top envoy for Syria, James Jeffrey, faced a barrage of pointed questions from senators in both parties on the president's decision to withdraw from Syria, which many have said was a betrayal of the Kurdish fighters who helped America defeat the Islamic State's caliphate in the country. 

"It is clear that the United States has been sidelined,” Menendez said, calling Trump's policy a "capitulation" to Turkey. 

“Russia and the murderous Assad regime are calling the shots," said Menendez, referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. "We don’t even have clarity about whether and where U.S. troops might remain."

Jeffrey acknowledged he was "not personally consulted" before Trump announced his decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria. Lawmakers said that demonstrated the "chaotic and ad hoc" nature of Trump's policy in the region.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, pressed Jeffrey on Trump's Oct. 6 phone call with Erdogan, in which the Turkish president told Trump he planned to invade Syria. Trump said then that he would remove American troops stationed on the Turkish-Syria border, which many said gave Erdogan the green light to attack the Kurds. 

"Erdogan basically said, 'I'm coming in, get out of the way' and America blinked," Romney said.

Jeffrey pushed back, saying Trump warned Erdogan not to invade Syria and did not give him a green light to attack the Kurds. He said American forces in Syria were never given a mission to defend the Kurds against an attack from Turkey, which is a NATO ally.

He said Erdogan's decision came despite "warning after warning" and "incentive after incentive" from the Trump administration to stave off such a move.

Kurdish forces controlled much of northeastern Syria until two weeks ago, when Turkey invaded and began pushing them south. Under the U.S.-brokered cease-fire, the Kurdish fighters agreed to pull back deeper into Syria, and Turkey agreed to stop its assault.

If the terms of the cease-fire are ratified by all sides, Trump will lift sanctions he imposed on Turkey earlier this month and Turkey will not advance further into Syria. 

Jeffrey defended the cease-fire, saying it has limited Turkey's territorial gains in Syria – and the chaos that unleashed. But he conceded that hundreds of Kurdish fighters have died in the two-week-long incursion and that ISIS fighters have taken advantage of the mayhem. 

He estimated that "dozens" of ISIS fighters – who had been captured by the Kurds – have escaped amid the upheaval created by Turkey's incursion. 

Turkey's invasion has "scrambled" the situation in Syria, undercut U.S. efforts against ISIS and "brought in the Russians and the Syrian regime forces in a way that is really tragic for everybody involved,” Jeffrey said. But Turkey itself, he said, has not gained much for its incursion.

The U.S. envoy said 10,000 captured ISIS fighters remain in Syria and their detention could be jeopardized "if things goes south" with the cease-fire. 

About three hours before the cease-fire deadline, Gen. Mazloum Kobani Abdi, the top commander of the Syrian Kurdish forces, sent a letter to Vice President Mike Pence saying he had withdrawn all his forces from a Turkish-controlled "safe zone" inside Syria.

Jeffrey expressed confidence that the Kurdish withdrawal was complete and the temporary cease-fire would become a permanent halt in the fighting.

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Earlier Tuesday, Erdogan said 1,300 Syrian Kurdish fighters had yet to vacate a stretch of the border, as required under the deal.

Erdogan warned Tuesday that if the Kurdish fighters did not withdraw, “our offensive will continue from where it left off, with a much greater determination.”

“There is no place for the (Kurdish fighters) in Syria’s future. We hope that with Russia’s cooperation, we will rid the region of separatist terror,” he said.

Trump has faced sustained blowback on Capitol Hill over his decision earlier this month to withdraw U.S. troops from northeastern Syria. Critics say that move gave Erdogan a green light to invade Syria and attack the Kurds. Turkey views the Kurds in Syria as terrorists.

On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., introduced a resolution that urges Trump to stop the U.S. withdrawal and calls on the president to “rethink” his invitation to Erdogan to visit the White House.

“It recognizes the grave consequences of U.S. withdrawal, the rising influence of Russia, Iran and the Assad regime, and the escape of more than 100 ISIS-affiliated fighters detained in the region,” McConnell said in a Senate floor speech Tuesday. “We specifically urge the president to end the drawdown” in Syria.

Russia has stepped into the void left by America's withdrawal, offering to patrol the border region and serve as a buffer between the Kurds and the Turks. The Kurds are hoping Russian and Syrian forces can keep Turkey's military at bay and help them maintain some autonomy in the region they carved out for themselves during Syria’s civil war. 

Putin is a staunch ally of the Assad regime, which has used chemical weapons to attack his own people amid Syria's horrific civil war.

SOURCE Reuters, as of Oct. 16; ESRI

While Erdogan and Putin met in Sochi to discuss the Syrian crisis, the Trump administration continued to send mixed signals about its policy and next steps. Trump has zigzagged between ordering a full withdrawal of U.S. forces to announcing he would leave a residual force there. 

Trump said Monday that a "small" number of U.S. troops will remain in Syria, a shift that came amid blistering criticism from lawmakers in both parties who have denounced his previous decision to withdraw American forces.

“I’m trying to get out of wars. We may have to get in wars, too,” Trump said in a rambling, 70-minute Cabinet meeting on Monday.

Jeffrey told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the administration was still reviewing its options on a residual military presence in northeastern Syria, although Trump has committed to leave a small number of troops in the south. 

McConnell did not say when the Senate would vote on his nonbinding resolution, which he touted as "stronger” than a measure passed by the House last week.

But the GOP Senate leader also expressed concerns about a more forceful response: bipartisan legislation that would impose stiff new sanctions on Turkey. Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., introduced a bill last week that would target Erdogan’s personal finances and sanction the Turkish armed forces, among other entities.

“We need to think extremely carefully before” imposing sanctions on a NATO ally, McConnell said. He said it’s not clear if such economic penalties would weaken Erdogan inside Turkey or “rally the country to cause.” He said the impact of such a bill could also hurt American companies and U.S. allies whose economies are closely intertwined with Turkey’s.

Contributing: The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Syria: Erdogan meets with Putin, warns Kurds as cease-fire to end