The ceasefire agreement announced after the meeting between U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara on 17 October 2019 is a clear diplomatic success for the latter. Whether it is indeed a breakthrough that will give Turkey all it aims for remains an open question. Ankara has, for now, averted a new round of sanctions President Donald Trump had threatened to impose in light of strong bipartisan blowback against his abrupt decision to give Turkey a perceived green light for its incursion into north eastern Syria, and to throw the U.S.’s partner in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), the Kurdish YPG, under the bus. The agreement also appears to imply U.S. acceptance of some version of Turkey’s demand to control a “safe zone” of some 30 kilometers south of the border with its own troops, and to end any presence of Syrian Kurdish groups affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Ankara, the U.S. and the EU consider a terrorist organization.
For the U.S., the ceasefire appears to offer little more than damage control: Washington’s sudden reversal concerning its presence in north east Syria, the third within 18 months, caused consternation among its European partners, who had committed to stabilize the area. In particular, the threat that thousands of ISIS fighters currently held by the SDF (of which the YPG is the core component) might escape in the chaos created by the Turkish offensive has caused grave concern. Even many of Trump’s close political allies in Washington are concerned that his decision to abandon a loyal partner such as the YPG, and to withdraw troops under fire, will permanently damage the credibility of future U.S. commitments.
Given the huge gap between the two sides in the interpretation of the agreement, in particular concerning its geographical scope, the most likely scenario appears to be that after the 120 hours stipulated for the YPG’s withdrawal from the “safe zone”, the latter will announce that it has fulfilled the terms and that Turkish obstruction is to blame for any shortcomings, while Ankara will accuse what it calls “terrorist groups” of non-compliance. Whether Turkey will resume its military operations to crush the YPG and expand the area it controls may ultimately depend on the position of Russia. Erdogan is expected to meet his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Sochi on 22 October, just when the deadline for a YPG withdrawal expires. Moscow has supported and reportedly midwifed an agreement between the SDF and the Syrian regime under Bashar Al-Assad that provided for Syrian troops to deploy to the border area and support the SDF in repelling the Turkish invasion. Erdogan has signaled that he would be fine with regime control over border areas per se, but so far, the presence of Syrian troops is more symbolic than real, and unlikely to convince Ankara that Damascus is back to take charge, secure the border, and end the de-facto rule of PKK-affiliated groups over the area. However, Erdogan can ill afford to ignore Russia’s preferences, not least because he needs Russian cooperation in the Idlib area further west.