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The Syrian ceasefire the US brokered is already falling apart

“Trump has managed to bungle this policy challenge in the worst of all ways,” said one former Pentagon official.

People are being carried in the trunk of a truck as residents continue returning home to Tal Abyad, Syria, on October 17, 2019.
Bekir Kasim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

It took less than a day for the ceasefire in Syria that President Donald Trump said was “Great for everybody” to fall apart.

On Thursday, Vice President Mike Pence and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made a deal whereby Ankara agreed to a five-day ceasefire, during which time fighters in the YPG — the main Syrian Kurdish fighting force in the region that helped the US fight ISIS for years — would withdraw from a 20-mile “safe zone” near the Turkish border.

The agreement also required the YPG to turn over its heavy weaponry and dismantle its fortifications. In exchange, the US would remove already-placed sanctions on Turkey if the ceasefire held.

But based on what Syrian Kurds said on Friday, Turkey isn’t abiding by its side of the deal.

“Despite the agreement to halt the fighting, air and artillery attacks continue to target the positions of fighters, civilian settlements and the hospital” in Ras al-Ayn, tweeted Mustafa Bali, the chief spokesperson for the northeastern Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the umbrella name for the fighters that joined the US against ISIS and mainly led by regional Kurds. “Turkey is violating the ceasefire agreement by continuing to attack the town since last night.”

Ilham Ahmed, a leading Syrian Kurdish politician, tweeted the same conclusion. “[D]espite the cease-fire deal, the Turks are still continuing airstrikes and ground offensive against Ras al Ain,” she wrote, based on a translation by journalist Wladimir Van Wilgenburg. “Some civilians have been killed in Turkish strikes, as they were trying to save some injured (people) stuck inside the city.”

Both Bali and Ahmed have a vested interest in making Turkey look bad, of course, so it’s fair to be cautious about their claims. But other more neutral sources clearly corroborate their statements.

The New York Times on Friday reported that shelling and gunfire could be heard in the town, including by some people over the border in Turkey. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based conflict monitor, found that Turkish forces targeted medical and aid organizations — including an unnamed American one — in the town to stop the evacuation of injured civilians. Journalists at AFP even captured airstrikes exploding in the area.

Erdoğan, for his part, told reporters Friday that clashes between Turkish-backed troops and Syrian Kurds weren’t happening, and that it was America’s job to ensure the Kurds held up their end of the bargain.

And Trump, after speaking with Erdogan on Friday, seemed to agree with him.

Put together, it’s pretty clear the ceasefire hasn’t ceased any fire, despite Trump championing the agreement on Thursday as “a great day for civilization,” passing on his “Congratulations to ALL!”

Experts I spoke to about the ceasefire, though, said they never shared the same optimism as the president.

“I never expected it to hold, as each side read it completely differently, and there’s no enforcement mechanism,” Faysal Itani, a Syria expert at the Atlantic Council in Washington, told me. “We have very little to no leverage here. Honestly, I don’t know what to say other than that amidst this idiocy.”

Trump bungled his Syria withdrawal “in the worst of all ways”

Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from northern Syria last week wasn’t by itself wrong. The way he did it — so abruptly, so thoughtlessly — is why so much chaos abounds.

The reason is simple: Trump had three years to plan for his desired Syria departure since he took office.

But instead of anticipating that Turkey might take advantage of the US troop withdrawal to launch military action against the Syrian Kurds — which any expert on the conflict could have told him was a real possibility — before withdrawing the troops, Trump made a seemingly spur-of-the-moment decision to pull out US troops after a phone call with Erdoğan last week.

That left the administration scrambling to deal with the impending Turkish invasion after having already squandered what little leverage it had, roughly 1,000 troops, to deter unwanted actions by Turkey and strike a diplomatic deal that may have at least temporarily pleased the players involved.

“We could’ve stopped Turkey’s incursion” into northern Syria, the Institute for the Study of War’s Jennifer Cafarella told me. “We didn’t want to.”

Several experts I spoke to conceded that the US was never going to get out of Syria cleanly. But there was definitely a pathway to do so that wouldn’t have left the northern part of the country in such disarray.

In brief, Trump didn’t have to spend months telegraphing he wanted American service members out of Syria, letting Erdogan know it was just a matter of time before he could invade. Trump didn’t have to withdraw US troops without credibly telling Erdogan before Turkey’s invasion to lay off the Kurds. And he didn’t have to neglect a diplomatic process that might — might — have worked if he gave Turkey something in return for allowing Kurds to remain in the area.

When repeatedly given a chance to do the right thing in Syria to make his troop withdrawal happen, Trump failed himself, the United States, and its Kurdish allies. The ceasefire just ended up being a Band-Aid that couldn’t cover the gaping wound Trump ripped open.

“Trump has managed to bungle this policy challenge in the worst of all ways,” Mara Karlin, who spent years on Middle East security issues at the Pentagon, told me.