President Trump plans to deliver a statement Wednesday morning on Syria, claiming a “big success” even as he faces bipartisan criticism for pulling back U.S. troops.
In a tweet, he previewed an 11 a.m. statement from the White House, touting a “safe zone” along the Turkey-Syria border and a prior cease-fire worked out between the U.S. and Turkey.
The president was optimistic after the initial 120-hour pause in the Turkish military operation there ended, and as the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) withdrew from a stretch of territory in northern Syria.
“Ceasefire has held and combat missions have ended. Kurds are safe and have worked very nicely with us,” Trump tweeted. “Captured ISIS prisoners secured.”
What happens next is unclear.
The U.S. withdrawal was followed by Turkish aggression, and Trump faced criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike who blamed him for allowing the violence to go unchecked and leaving Kurdish allies to fend for themselves. Turkey and Russia reached an agreement Tuesday that would transform the map of northeast Syria, installing their forces along the border and filling the void left by the abrupt withdrawal of U.S. troops.
But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Ankara last week to work out the cease-fire. Though that period has since lapsed, Pence said there’s an opportunity for a permanent cease-fire in the region.
James Jeffrey, a career diplomat who oversees Washington’s role in the global fight against the Islamic State, also told lawmakers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he does not believe the troop withdrawal added to Turkey’s decision to invade northern Syria. Jeffrey, however, did concede that if U.S. forces had been told to stand their ground amid a Turkish invasion, Turkey may have thought otherwise about crossing the border.
Following the exit of U.S. troops from the region, Russian military police began patrolling part of the Syrian border Wednesday, following the agreement between Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Under the 10-point deal, Russia and Turkey have given Kurdish fighters 150 hours starting at noon Wednesday — meaning, until next Tuesday at 6 p.m. — to withdraw from the border.
Russian and Syrian government forces would move into that area immediately to ensure the Kurdish fighters pull back 20 miles from the border. Then at the end of the 150 hours, Russian-Turkish patrols would begin along a six-mile-wide strip of the border.
The exception would be the region around the town of Qamishli at the far eastern end of the border, which has some of the densest Kurdish population.
Russian spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said, according to Russian newswires, that if the Kurds do not complete their withdrawal by the Tuesday deadline, Turkey would resume their offensive.
“It’s quite obvious that if the Kurdish units don’t withdraw with their weapons then Syrian border guards and Russian military police will have to step back. And the remaining Kurdish units will be steamrolled by the Turkish army,” Peskov said.