WASHINGTON – Russia and Turkey agreed on Tuesday to take joint control of a vital strip of territory along the Syria-Turkey border as the U.S. military continued to withdraw from Syria.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, struck the deal shortly before the expiration of a U.S.-brokered cease-fire that had temporarily halted a Turkish attack on Kurdish forces in Syria.
That deal gives Russia a critical foothold in the Middle East, amid a power vacuum created by the U.S. withdrawal. Under the agreement, Putin and Erdogan agreed to work together to remove Kurdish fighters from a 20-mile zone in northern Syria.
Kurdish forces had controlled that territory in northeastern Syria until two weeks ago, when Turkey invaded and began pushing them south. Under the U.S.-brokered cease-fire expiring Tuesday, the Kurdish fighters agreed to pull back deeper into Syria, and Turkey agreed to stop its assault.
About three hours before the cease-fire deadline, Gen. Mazloum Kobani Abdi, the top commander of the Syrian Kurdish forces, sent a letter to Vice President Mike Pence saying he had withdrawn all his forces from a Turkish-controlled “safe zone” inside Syria, according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity.
This official said the U.S. has not confirmed the Kurdish withdrawal and the Turks are “asking ‘are they all out … where are they?’”
Once the cease-fire deadline passes at approximately 3 p.m. ET, the Turkish forces will either “let us know (the Kurds are gone) or they will shoot them when they find them,” this official said. But he quickly added, “we don’t think that’s going to happen….We think Turkey in the end will agree that the withdrawal has taken place. This means the Turkish pause becomes Turkish halt in military operations.”
Earlier on Tuesday, Erdogan said that 1,300 Syrian Kurdish fighters had yet to vacate a stretch of the border, as required under the deal.
Erdogan warned Tuesday that if the Kurdish fighters do not withdraw, “our offensive will continue from where it left off, with a much greater determination.”
“There is no place for the (Kurdish fighters) in Syria’s future. We hope that with Russia’s cooperation, we will rid the region of separatist terror,” he said.
The developments unfolded as President Donald Trump faced mounting blowback on Capitol Hill over his decision earlier this month to withdraw U.S. troops from northeastern Syria. Critics say that move gave Erdogan a green light to invade Syria and attack the Kurds. Turkey views the Kurds in Syria as terrorists.
On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., introduced a resolution that urges Trump to stop the U.S. military withdrawal from Syria and calls on the president to “rethink” his invitation to Erdogan to visit the White House.
“It recognizes the grave consequences of U.S. withdrawal, the rising influence of Russia, Iran and the Assad regime, and the escape of more than 100 ISIS-affiliated fighters detained in the region,” McConnell said in a Senate floor speech Tuesday. “We specifically urge the president to end the drawdown” in Syria.
Russia has stepped into the void left by America’s withdrawal, offering to patrol the border region and serve as a buffer between the Kurds and the Turks. The Kurds are hoping Russian and Syrian forces can keep Turkey’s military at bay and help them maintain some autonomy in the region they carved out for themselves during Syria’s civil war.
Putin is a staunch ally of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, who has used chemical weapons to attack his own people amid Syria’s horrific civil war.
While Erdogan and Putin met in Sochi to discuss the Syrian crisis, the Trump administration continued to send mixed signals about its policy and next steps. Trump has zigzagged between ordering a full withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, to announcing he would leave a residual force there.
Trump said Monday that a “small” number of U.S. troops will remain in Syria, a shift that came amid blistering criticism from lawmakers in both parties who have denounced his previous decision to withdraw American forces.
“I’m trying to get out of wars. We may have to get in wars, too,” Trump said in a rambling, 70-minute Cabinet meeting on Monday.
On Tuesday, Trump’s top diplomat, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, said “some progress has certainly been made” to stop the Turkey-Kurdish conflict but conceded that the outcome remained unclear.
“The success of the outcome there is not yet fully determined,” Pompeo said during a speech to the conservative Heritage Foundation. He did not say what the Trump administration would do to keep the cease-fire in place.
McConnell did not say when the Senate would vote on his nonbinding resolution, which he touted as “stronger” than a measure passed by the House last week.
But the GOP Senate leader also expressed concerns about a more forceful response: bipartisan legislation that would slap stiff new sanctions on Turkey. Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., introduced a bill last week that would target Erdogan’s personal finances and sanction the Turkish armed forces, among other entities.
“We need to think extremely carefully before” imposing sanctions on a NATO ally, McConnell said. He said it’s not clear if such economic penalties would weaken Erdogan inside Turkey or “rally the country to cause.” He said the impact of such a bill could also hurt American companies and U.S. allies whose economies are closely intertwined with Turkey’s.
Contributing: The Associated Press