In Syria, Turkey and the U.S. Reach a Fragile Cease-Fire

3 MINS READOct 18, 2019 | 15:41 GMT
Forecast Update

The U.S.-Turkish relationship is under great stress, which is why Washington and Ankara's ability to reach an enduring understanding over their differences in Syria will go a long way to shaping their future ties.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence emerged Oct. 17 from a marathon meeting in Ankara with an agreement to ostensibly end the bloodletting in northeastern Syria. But while the deal provides a potential foundation for the stabilization of the rocky relationship between the two NATO member states, the agreement is extremely fragile and susceptible to collapse at any moment.

What's in the Deal

After more than four hours of negotiations between the Americans and the Turks, the sides reached an agreement to halt the fighting between Turkey and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) for 120 hours, giving time for the SDF to theoretically disengage from a 32-kilometer-deep (20 miles) zone along the Turkish border that the Turkish military would subsequently administer. Furthermore, Washington and Ankara agreed that the People's Democratic Forces (YPG), the mainly Kurdish force that is the backbone of the SDF, would hand over its heavy weapons and dismantle its fortifications in the zone. Finally, the White House agreed that it would not implement any more sanctions against Ankara and that it would lift all previously imposed measures once the Turkish offensive, Operation Peace Spring, officially concludes. At the same time, Ankara said it had no intention of pushing beyond the M4 highway, which runs parallel to the border about 32 kilometers south of the frontier. In the end, the agreement is a victory for Ankara, which has been demanding that the SDF withdraw from the zone.

The Trump administration is clearly willing to work toward lifting the sanctions on Turkey, but that won't stop many members of Congress from pushing forward with their own sanctions bills.

Obstacles Abound

With the Turks largely pleased with a favorable deal and U.S. President Donald Trump trumpeting the agreement as "a great deal for civilization," there is a chance that Washington and Ankara can at least improve their deteriorating relationship. The reality, however, is that numerous factors could scuttle the deal. For one, the SDF has said that it accepts the cease-fire, but it has yet to concretely agree to any withdrawal, let alone dismantle its fortifications and abandon its heavy weapons. And given that the group has tilted toward Russia and the Syrian government in response to the initial U.S. green light for the Turkish operation, it is doubtful that it would ever fully agree to such terms. Furthermore, the SDF insists that the cease-fire is only applicable to a narrow zone of the border between the two towns of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain, where the Turkish offensive is currently the most threatening to the SDF positions, and does not cover the other areas of the border. But even in areas in and around Ras al-Ain, there are already reports of cease-fire violations.

And then there is the issue of sanctions. The Trump administration is clearly willing to work toward lifting the sanctions on Turkey, but that won't stop many members of Congress from pushing forward with their own sanctions bills. Ultimately, cease-fire violations, congressional sanctions, Damascus' potential interference and the SDF's refusal to abide by an agreement slanted toward Turkey could yet sink the deal before its ink even dries.

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