Vice President Pence Visits Turkey To Try And Halt Fighting With Kurds In Syria

Oct 17, 2019
Originally published on October 17, 2019 5:59 pm
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Vice President Mike Pence announced today after hours of talks with Turkey's president that the U.S. and Turkey have reached a deal to suspend the fighting in northern Syria.

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VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: It will be a pause in military operations for 120 hours while the United States facilitates the withdrawal of YPG from the affected areas in the safe zone.

CHANG: The YPG are the Kurdish fighters that Turkey has been attacking. Just to remind everyone about this fast-moving story - the hostilities began after President Trump ordered on October 6 the withdrawal of U.S. forces from northern Syria, abandoning U.S. Kurdish allies there. For details on today's agreement, we are joined now by NPR's Peter Kenyon. He's in Turkey's capital, Ankara. Hey, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hello.

CHANG: So tell us more about what the U.S. and Turkey have agreed to at this point.

KENYON: Well, as described by Vice President Mike Pence, Turkey agrees to pause its military operation, as we heard, for 120 hours, so roughly five days. And over that time, the YPG Kurdish fighters Turkey's been attacking, they will withdraw from the border area. And Turkey wants to turn that area into what it calls a safe zone. So if that withdrawal of the Kurdish fighters is completed within the five days - and by the way, Pence says it's already begun - then the pause in the Turkish military operation becomes a permanent cease-fire.

CHANG: OK. But before today's meeting, Erdogan was pretty clear about his position. He said that he would never agree to a cease-fire in northern Syria. So what has changed since yesterday?

KENYON: Well, the one big thing that changed is, if this plays out as Pence outlined, these Kurdish fighters are going to move away from the border area that Turkey wants for its safe zone. That has been Turkey's goal all along. Erdogan refused a cease-fire if the YPG was still there on the border. But he's also said, if they leave, there's really no need for a military operation.

Now, if you turn that around and look at what's in this agreement for the Kurdish fighters, it's a very different question. It looks like all they're getting is a halt to the Turkish operation, which is certainly important, especially for civilians, but it gives the Kurdish fighters nothing politically, makes no nod toward their aspirations for more autonomy. So Kurdish acceptance of this over time will have to be something to watch. Pence was at pains to say this agreement includes protecting religious and ethnic minorities. So we'll have to see how that plays out, as well.

CHANG: Well, after this deal was announced, in Fort Worth, Texas, President Trump suggested that, you know, everything that has happened this month was all part of some unconventional approach towards stability in the region. Here's a bit of what he said.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: This was something that they'd been trying to get for 10 years. You would have lost millions and millions of lives. They couldn't get it without a little rough love, as I called it. I just put out, they needed a little bit of that at the beginning. And then everybody said, wow, this is tougher than we thought. When those guns start shooting, they tend to do things.

CHANG: So the question remains - will this deal actually work on the ground, this move to withdraw the Kurdish forces and that that will lead to peace in the region?

KENYON: That's where the big questions come in. I mean, moving the YPG Kurds out of the safe zone area is a win for Turkey, but how will Turkey hold that territory? How many soldiers is it planning to commit? Twenty-miles-deep safe zone - at one point it said it should be 300 miles wide. It's a situation that would be much easier if the cease-fire holds. So that, of course, becomes the ultimate question.

CHANG: Another question comes to mind - Vice President Pence also said that U.S. forces would reengage with Kurds and aiding this withdrawal of Kurdish fighters, but given that Kurds are now allied with Syria, how does that work?

KENYON: Well, that is something the military is wanting to know, as well. The immediate comments have been, well, we're not really sure how this is going to work. They're packing up. They're leaving. Now do they stop that and facilitate this relocation? And, you know, how will that facilitation be received by the YPG? Vice President Pence says the U.S. has been in touch with the Kurds. He says they are willing to move, and that is what we will be watching to see. In fact, he says they welcome this cease-fire.

CHANG: And how are the Kurdish forces and people living in the region reacting to all of this?

KENYON: Well, so far, we're seeing reports of celebratory gunfire in some Kurdish areas. Now, it remains to be seen if that will hold true once the full parameters of this deal become more clear. It's possible that the phrase cease-fire is overwhelming everything else in the very early going of this agreement as far as the Kurdish population is concerned, which is very understandable. But the question, of course, is will that reaction last?

CHANG: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon in Ankara, Turkey.

Thanks very much, Peter.

KENYON: Thanks, Ailsa.

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