(CNSNews.com) – A U.S.-Turkey agreement for the Turks to “pause” a military offensive in northern Syria for five days to allow Syrian Kurdish fighters to withdraw applies only to one relatively small section of the strip of Syrian territory that Ankara wants as a buffer zone.
That’s the reading of both U.S. special representative for Syria engagement Jim Jeffrey and the Kurdish commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the force being targeted by Turkey.
The SDF was a key U.S. ally in the fight against ISIS, but Turkey considers the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which dominate the SDF, to be “terrorists.”
Briefing reporters after Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo secured the agreement with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, Jeffrey explained that the understanding relates only to a portion of the Syrian territory near the border which Turkish forces have seized in their 10-day-old “Operation Peace Spring.”
“Essentially, we have this pause in the Turkish operations for five days as the SDF withdraws from those areas where the Turks are,” he said, describing the area in question as “the central third of the area.”
Erdogan’s declared plan has been to push back the YPG/SDF and create a “safe zone” about 20 miles wide and 300 miles long, running from Manbij west of the Euphrates River in the west, all the way to the Iraq border in the east.
Although he says he wants to resettle there millions of Syrians who fled the civil war and sheltered in Turkey, a major goal of the operation is to weaken and drive back the autonomous Syrian Kurdish zone which Erdogan regards as a strategic threat.
Turkish forces have occupied only the central portion of the area he wants – between the towns of Tal Abyad in the west and Ras al-Ain in the east, roughly 20 miles wide and 65 miles long. According to SDF commander Mazlum Abdi Kobani, that is the only area from which its forces will now withdraw under the Erdogan-Pence agreement.
Territory to the east and west of that area were not affected by the agreement, he stressed in an announcement on SDF-affiliated Ronahi TV.
“Nothing has been discussed for the other regions. Our forces remain there,” he said. “Maybe there will be discussions over these other regions in the future. But this agreement is for that region [only].”
Jeffrey, who was briefing reporters accompanying Pompeo to his next destination, Israel, also made clear that the territory to the east and west of the area now held by Turkish forces was not covered in the agreement.
“The Turks have their own discussions going on with the Russians and with 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 [during the Ankara talks].”
“That right now is not Turkish-controlled territory. It’s controlled by the Russians or it’s controlled by a mix of Russians and Syrians, or by Syrians.”
‘We got what we wanted’
The 13-point agreement drawn up by Pence and Erdogan reiterates U.S. and Turkish commitment to Syria’s “territorial integrity,” but is silent on Turkey withdrawing from Syrian territory.
However, Jeffrey said the Turks have given repeated assurances that they have no intention of “staying in Syria very long.”
Having said that, he noted that Turkey also holds “huge chunks of northwest Syria.”
The 13-point agreement says that, after the five-day pause, if the YPG fighters have withdrawn from the area in question, then “Operation Peace Spring will be halted.”
Once that occurs, the U.S. pledged to lift the recently-announced sanctions on Turkey.
Point nine of the agreement – which Turkish officials have been emphasizing following Pence’s visit – is especially contentious, providing for “the re-collection of YPG heavy weapons and the disablement of their fortifications and all other fighting positions.”
“We got what we wanted,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told a press conference after the talks. “Taking away the weapons in their [YPG] hands is not enough. It includes the destruction of their fighting positions to an unusable level, to the destruction of their fortifications.”
Point six of the agreement is also potentially contentious, given that the U.S. disagrees with Turkey’s contention that the YPG – arguably the most effective ally in the U.S.-led fight against ISIS – are terrorists.
“Turkey and the U.S. agree that counter-terrorism operations must target only terrorists and their hideouts, shelters, emplacements, weapons, vehicles and equipment,” it says, without saying whether “terrorists” in this context refers to ISIS, the YPG, or both.