Following a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to the NATO Headquarters in Brussels, where he updated the alliance’ Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on the temporary cessation of hostilities in Syria.
Pompeo stressed that while “Turkey has valid security concerns along that border, we didn’t think this was the right way to approach it.” Saying “We took seriously America’s capacity to try and stop that incursion,” he added that Washington was “very clear” regarding its objection to Ankara’s cross-border incursion into northern Syria.
The top American diplomat underscored that while some breaches were reported, “We’re very hopeful that we will continue to be able to implement and execute that,” said Pompeo. “There was some activity today, but we also saw some very positive activity, the beginnings of the coordination that will be required.” He then stated, “The reason this couldn’t happen instantaneously is there was a great deal of coordination that had to take place so that there can, in fact, be a safe withdrawal of the YPG fighters that are inside of the Turkish-controlled area that is covered by the agreement.”
As part of the so-called “pause” of hostilities, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have withdrawn from the besieged border town of Ras al-Ayn, that had been subject to intense battles in recent days. It is important to mention, however, that the SDF only agreed to withdraw from a 120-kilometer section of the border between Ras al-Ayn and Tel Abyad to the west, which is populated by an Arab majority of both Christians and Muslims.
In contrast, an SDF source wishing to remain anonymous told TV7 that “predominantly Kurdish territories (in the Ankara envisioned safe zone) won’t be abandoned for fear of Turkish reprisals against the civilian population.” He explained in a written conversation that “many of the (Kurdish YPG) fighters have families that live in (the referred to) territories,” which will challenge the Turkish demand of a comprehensive Kurdish withdrawal.
U.S. President Donald Trump praised Turkey for accepting the so-called pause of hostilities, despite some breaches he said were immediately halted. Speaking to reporters in Washington, the American leader said “We’re doing very, very well with Turkey. There’s a cease fire, or a pause, or whatever you want to call it. There was some sniper fire this morning. There was mortar fire this morning that was eliminated quickly. And they’re back to the full pause.”
President Trump also confirmed that U.S. forces have secured oil fields in northeast Syria, after concerns were raised that an American withdrawal would allow for Washington’s regional enemies to take over the massive crude reservoirs. “We’ve taken control of the oil in the Middle East,” said Trump, adding, “The oil that we’re talking about, the oil that everybody was worried about. We have –the U.S. has control of that,” stressing “And there are no shots being fired.”
Amid an official visit to Afghanistan, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper elaborated on President Trump’s statements. Speaking to reporters in the city of Kabul this morning, Esper noted that discussions are being held about possibly keeping a “residual (U.S.) force” in Syria, to – among others – safeguard the referred to oil fields. “Certainly, will be discussed at a military level is what does the next phase of the counter ISIS campaign look like,” he said, adding, “And I know that’s a top concern of mine. Second only to protection of our forces coming out of Syria. But we’ve got to work through those details.” The Pentagon Chief then reiterated “And that’s, again, a principal reason why I’ll be meeting with our allies and partners this week.”
Prior to his arrival in Afghanistan, Secretary Mark Esper announced that all of the nearly 1,000 U.S. troops withdrawing from northern Syria were expected to move to Western Iraq, where they will continue to take an active role in the global campaign against the Islamic State, as well as preserve Washington’s interests in the country, amid growing Iranian influence.“Well, let me just say that the troops, we have troops in towns in south, in northeast Syria that are located next to the oil fields,” said Esper. He then elaborated that “The troops in those towns are not in the present phase of withdrawal. The present phase of withdrawal from northeast Syria involves those troops up along the border, if you will, principally at the Kobani LZ (landing zone) at this point time.” Esper then reiterated, “So that, as I said yesterday, this withdrawal will take weeks, not days. Until that time our forces will remain in the towns that are located near the oil fields. The purpose of those forces, a purpose of those forces, working with the SDF is to deny access to those oilfields by ISIS and others who may benefit from their revenues that could be earned. I’ve made no decision with regard to various options. Those are things that we would have to present to the president in due course.”
A Kurdish news agency has uploaded a video purporting to show local residents hurling rocks at U.S. armored vehicles, as they drove through Qamishli in northern Syria. It was not immediately clear whether the American military convoy was withdrawing or patrolling the border town, which is situated in the Al-Hasakah Governorate and location of nearly half of Syria’s extracted oil.
Meanwhile, The European Council President Donald Tusk insisted that the U.S.-brokered cessation of hostilities was not a genuine ceasefire, but rather a demand that the Kurds capitulate to the Turkey’s will. President Tusk, who is a vocal critique of Turkey, said “to be very consistent here, we have to reiterate our call for Turkey to put a permanent end to its military action immediately.”
This, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that he informed both the U.S. and the European Union that Ankara’s Peace Spring operation will immediately be resumed “from where we left off,” if the Kurdish forces fail to withdraw in accordance with the American-brokered agreement.
During a rally before thousands of his supporters during a televised event in the central Turkish province of Kayseri, Erdogan revealed his plan to discuss the deployment of Syrian government forces in Ankara’s envisioned “safe zone” in the northern Arab Republic during his slated talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin. “As you know, (Syrian) regime forces, who are under the protection of Russia, are present in some parts of our operation area,” Erdogan announced, saying the matter would be reviewed with Putin “because we have to find a solution. The same situation holds true for that area as well.” He then cautioned, “Again, if it works – it works, and if it doesn’t – we will continue to implement our own plans.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov responded to Erdogan’s comments by reiterating Moscow’s commitment to facilitate dialogue between Ankara and Damascus, underscoring that “Both sides expressed their interest in Russia’s help in this process.” He went on to say that, “of course, dialogue between Turkey and the Syrian Arab Republic is also needed, where we are also ready to play a supportive role, to encourage such direct contacts.”