Trump’s deal with Turkey fails to convince U.S. senators

U.S. and Turkish leaders hailed an agreement to halt Turkey’s military operation in northeast Syria as an historic step towards peace, but the terms laid out in the deal raise questions about its feasibility and U.S. President Donald Trump’s motives in agreeing to it.

The U.S. president applauded what he called his unconventional strategy of allowing Turkey and U.S.-backed Kurdish forces to battle it out in northeast Syria before brokering the deal on Thursday, likening the week-long conflict to a playground fight.

Yet the deal followed weeks of inconsistent steps by Trump, and U.S. politicians and analysts have accused him of handing over everything Turkey asked for in a show of weakness.

The abandonment of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is “a bloodstain on the annals of American history,” Republican Senator Mitt Romney said after the deal was announced on Thursday.

“Are we so weak and inept diplomatically that Turkey forced the hand of the United States of America?” he said.

The 13 points listed in the deal state that the SDF and its affiliates will withdraw from a “safe zone” that U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said would extend 32 km south of an unspecified extent of the border.

Turkey had demanded the creation of a safe zone cleared of the SDF, which it views as a terrorist organisation, since long before it launched its operation on Oct. 9. In August, U.S. and Turkish officials agreed on a joint mechanism to clear an area of the Kurdish-led group.

The deal was made to prevent a Turkish offensive against fighters who had played a key role in the U.S.-backed fight against the Islamic State, but progress was stalled as Turkey demanded control of a far deeper zone than the Kurdish side was willing to hand over.

After launching an offensive that earned Turkey condemnation from the world, the White House appears to have accepted both Ankara’s demand on the depth of the safe zone and that it will be “primarily enforced by the Turkish Armed Forces”.

Turkish officials were delighted. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan responded to a tweet by Trump congratulating his counterpart on the deal. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said shortly after it was announced that Turkey had got what it wanted. The Washington Post reported the relief of Turkish officials at how smoothly negotiations had gone.

“This isn’t a ceasefire – it's a total capitulation to Turkey and the capstone of our abandonment of the Kurds,” U.S. Senator Chris Murphy tweeted on Thursday evening. “Don't pay attention to the headline - read the actual agreement. It's effectively surrender.”

Trump called the deal a “great day for civilization” and suggested it could spell a peace between Turks and Kurds that had been sought for decades.

But, the senator pointed out, the Kurdish side had not been at the negotiating table, and though SDF commander Mazloum Kobani said his forces had agreed to a ceasefire in some areas, the Kurdish side had not agreed to Turkey’s terms for the safe zone.

“As far as he is concerned the ceasefire is only where there’s active fighting and he totally rejects the idea of any kind of withdrawal, any removal of heavy weapons,” the Guardian quoted Charles Lister, a Syria expert at the Middle East Institute, as saying. “So everyone seems to be talking a different language, which can only spell more trouble.”

On Friday, hours after the deal was announced, fighting continued in Ras al Ayn, where SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said the Turkish side had continued shelling and bombing the key border city in breach of its agreement.

Moves from the U.S. Congress to sanction Turkey over its operation likewise appear to still be in progress, despite the assurances made by Pence on Thursday.

“While a 120-hour ceasefire is welcome, the other terms cave to the maximalist demands of Erdoğan and would allow Turkey to ethnically cleanse a big swathe of Kurdish areas and lead to a revival of ISIS,” Senator Chris Van Hollen tweeted on Thursday evening.

Van Hollen, the co-author of one of three bills in Congress proposing tough sanctions on Turkey, said he and Senator Lindsey Graham would continue to pursue their bipartisan sanctions bill.

The U.S. withdrawal that prevented Turkey’s advance, however, has already taken place, meaning that whatever the outcome of the sanction bills, Washington’s influence on northeast Syria will be eclipsed by the Syrian government and its Russian backers.

As if to drive home this point, Erdoğan is to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi on Tuesday, the day the 120-hour pause in the Turkish offensive ends.