Shelling in northeast Syria continues despite five-day truce with Turkey
Shelling could be heard at the Syrian-Turkish border on Friday despite a five-day ceasefire agreed between Turkey and the United States, with Washington saying that the deal covered only a small part of the territory Ankara aims to seize.
Machine-gun fire and shelling could be heard from the border, with smoke rising from the Syrian border battlefield city of Ras al Ain early on Friday (local time), although the sounds of fighting later subsided by mid-morning.
The truce, announced on Thursday by US Vice President Mike Pence after talks in Ankara with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, sets out a five-day pause to let the Kurdish-led SDF militia withdraw from an area controlled by Turkish forces.
The SDF said air and artillery attacks continued to target its positions as well as civilian targets in Ral al Ain: “Turkey is violating the ceasefire agreement by continuing to attack the town since last night,” SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali tweeted.
The deal was aimed at easing a crisis that saw US President Donald Trump order a hasty and unexpected US retreat, which his critics say amounted to abandoning loyal Kurdish allies who fought for years alongside US troops against Islamic State.
Mr Trump praised the deal, saying it would save “millions of lives”.
Turkey cast it as a complete victory in its campaign to control a strip of border territory hundreds of kilometres long and about 30km deep, including major Kurdish-held towns and cities.
But the US special envoy for Syria, James Jeffrey, said the agreement fell short of that aim, covering only an area where Turkish forces were already operating.
Kurdish fighters leading the SDF, who are meant to withdraw under the deal, appeared to have taken a similar view that the truce covered only a relatively small area.
SDF commander Mazloum Kobani told Kurdish broadcaster Ronahi TV late on Thursday the group would accept the ceasefire but it was limited to a strip between Ras al Ain and the town of Tal Abyad, directly on the border and about 120km apart.
Turkey in negotiations with Moscow and Damascus
However, with the United States pulling its entire 1,000-strong contingent from northern Syria, the extent of Turkey’s ambitions is likely to be determined by Washington’s adversaries Russia and Iran, filling the vacuum created by the US retreat.
The government of President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Moscow and Tehran, has already taken up positions in territory formerly protected by Washington, invited by the Kurds.
The US envoy Mr Jeffrey acknowledged that Turkey was now negotiating with Moscow and Damascus over control of areas where Washington was pulling out, which were not covered by the US-Turkish ceasefire agreement.
“As you know we have a very convoluted situation now with Russian, Syrian army, Turkish, American, SDF and some Daesh (Islamic State) elements all floating around in a very wild way,” Mr Jeffrey said.
“Now, the Turks have their own discussions going on with the Russians and the Syrians in other areas of the northeast and in Manbij to the west of the Euphrates,” he said. “Whether they incorporate that later into a Turkish-controlled safe zone, it was not discussed in any detail.”
The joint US-Turkish statement released after Thursday’s talks said Washington and Ankara would cooperate on handling Islamic State fighters and family members held in prisons and camps, a major international concern.
Mr Pence said US sanctions imposed on Tuesday would be lifted once the ceasefire became permanent.
In Washington, US senators who have criticised the Trump administration for failing to prevent the Turkish assault in the first place said they would press ahead with legislation to impose sanctions against Turkey.
The Turkish assault began after Mr Trump moved US troops out of the way following an October 6 phone call with Mr Erdogan.
It has created a new humanitarian crisis in Syria with — according to Red Cross estimates — 200,000 civilians taking flight, a security alert over thousands of Islamic State fighters potentially abandoned in Kurdish jails, and a political maelstrom at home for Mr Trump.
Turkey says the “safe zone” would make room to settle up to two million Syrian refugees it is currently hosting, and would push back the YPG militia which it deems a terrorist group because of its links to Kurdish insurgents in southeast Turkey.
A Turkish official said that Ankara got “exactly what we wanted” from the talks with the United States.