The US and Turkey reached a Syrian ceasefire. But what does that mean?

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Vice President Mike Pence shakes hands with Turkish President Recep Yayyip Erdoğan in front of Turkish flags.

Vice President Mike Pence meets to discuss a ceasefire with Turkish President Recep Yayyip Erdoğan in Ankara on October 17, 2019. | Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Turkish Presidency via Getty Images

It certainly looks as though it’s a big win for Turkey.

The United States and Turkey have agreed to a ceasefire in northeastern Syria, a week after President Donald Trump withdrew US troops from the Kurdish-held area, effectively clearing the way for a Turkish military operation against the Kurds.

But the terms of the ceasefire, which Vice President Mike Pence announced Thursday after meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Ankara, are still unclear, as is how it will actually be implemented.

Turkey isn’t even calling it a ceasefire — it’s calling it a win.

According to Pence, Turkey has agreed to a 120-hour (five-day) ceasefire, during which time fighters in the YPG — the main Syrian Kurdish fighting force in the region that has helped the US fight ISIS for several years now — would withdraw from a 20-mile “safe zone” near the border with Turkey. The agreement also requires the YPG to turn over its heavy weaponry and dismantle its fortifications.

In exchange, the United States will not place any more sanctions on Turkey, and if a permanent ceasefire goes into effect, then the US will remove the sanctions and penalties already placed on Turkey for its invasion.

”We got what we wanted. This is not a ceasefire. We [will] only halt our operations,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said.

Many questions remain.

For one, it is not clear the Syrian Kurds were consulted at all about this arrangement, and the extent to which they’ll comply remains unclear.

Commander Mazlum Abdi of the Syrian Democratic Forces (of which the YPG is a major part) said they would accept the ceasefire; however, he specified that “this ceasefire is for the region where fighting is ongoing at the moment,” meaning the area between the towns of Ras al-Ayn and Tal Abyad, and said that a “ceasefire about the other regions needs to be discussed.”

Pence said the US had received “assurances from the YPG that they will agree to the ceasefire.” But there seems to be some discrepancy between what the US and Turkey are saying and what the Kurds are saying when it comes to the ceasefire.

The agreement also doesn’t mention Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (or his Russian and Iranian backers), who has since allied with the Syrian Kurds. He’s moved into parts of Kurdish-held territory, and since Assad and Turkey are technically foes in the Syrian war, it doesn’t seem as though he’ll take kindly to Turkey just gobbling up Syrian territory.

Pence praised Trump for his “strong leadership” on Turkey, but it looks — at least right now— like Turkey got exactly what it wanted and the United States ceded close to the last of its leverage in Syria. And in doing so, it appeared to sell out its Kurdish partners once again.

That did not stop President Donald Trump from bragging that this was a “great day for civilization.” “I am proud of the United States for sticking by me in following a necessary, but somewhat unconventional path,” Trump proclaimed on Twitter.

The ceasefire, if it holds, should at the very least pause the bloodshed in northern Syria. But it does little to resolve the underlying tensions or reverse the week-long assault on the Syrian Kurds that displaced approximately 300,000 and killed at least 200 civilians, including 18 children.

It’s also pretty scarce on important details.

Yet both Trump and Erdoğan are claiming this as a win — which might be exactly what matters. A deal, even a not-great one, will give Trump the chance to claim success, while Erdoğan gets everything he wants, including relieving some of the pressure of US sanctions on his country.

This is a “huge win for the Turks,” Jasmine El-Gamal, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told me. Erdoğan “got affirmation from the US that [his] concerns are legitimate. Even if the US doesn’t agree with them, [Turkey] can package their actions as legitimate.”

What the Kurds get out of it, unfortunately, is less clear, other than the chance to escape the territory they’ve fought for and held for years with little more than their lives.

The US may have helped put a temporary pause on the carnage, but Trump’s decision to withdraw from the region is what allowed the carnage to happen in the first place. The ceasefire is a Band-Aid for a problem of the administration’s own creation.

Turkey won big. Assad and Russia may win, too.

There are other players involved here besides the Kurds and Turkey. Specifically, the Syrian regime, and Russia, which supports it.

Assad and the Syrian Kurds made a pact out of necessity to counter Turkey after the US withdrew completely from the region and left them without a partner. This gave Assad permission to move into parts of the territory that the Kurds, with American help, retook from ISIS.

On October 22, just when the ceasefire is set to expire, Erdoğan is meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad’s main benefactor, in Sochi, Russia. Russian forces have stepped into the areas deserted by US troops, and right now, they’re poised to be the key powerbroker between Assad and Turkey, which may very well change the trajectory of the Syrian civil war.

Though Turkey and Assad are technically on opposite sides of this war, Erdoğan is well on his way to achieving his primary goal of weakening and pushing back the Kurds. And Assad is now on his way to reclaiming a huge swath of his country.

This is “paving the way for a global settlement between Assad and Erdoğan,” said Soner Çağaptay, who heads the Turkish research program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and is the author of The New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey.

Çağaptay suggested that Assad may be willing to use his new relationship with the Syrian Kurds as leverage with Turkey. If that happens, the expectation could be a near “complete Assad-Russia takeover” of Syria, he added. The US (and Europe) won’t be in the picture. And the losers are the civilians and Kurds.

The other big question mark in all of this is ISIS, which El-Gamal told me is another big risk that remains unsolved by this ceasefire. The SDF had been guarding the about 12,000 ISIS prisoners and approximately 70,000 displaced ISIS women and children at al-Hol camp. The agreement between the US and Turkey says that the two will “coordinate” on detention facilities.

But not all of those detention centers are in that buffer zone that Turkey’s trying to establish, and it seems unlikely the US would take control since it’s, well, gone. And either way, any more chaos or confusion could not only give ISIS detainees a chance to escape but also turn the area into a fertile recruiting ground for the terrorist group.

And these will be problems even if the ceasefire works as planned. Right now, there is no clear alternative for what happens if it doesn’t.