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U.S. hails cease-fire; Kurds must vacate border area

ANKARA, Turkey — The U.S. and Turkey agreed Thursday to a cease-fire in the Turks’ deadly attacks on Kurdish fighters in northern Syria, requiring the Kurds to vacate the area in an arrangement that largely solidifies Turkey’s position and aims in the weeklong conflict. The deal includes a conditional halt to American economic sanctions.

After negotiations with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence hailed the five-day cease-fire as the way to end the bloodshed caused by Turkey’s invasion. He remained silent on whether it amounted to a second abandonment of America’s former Kurdish allies in the fight against the Islamic State group.

Turkish troops and Turkish-backed Syrian fighters launched their offensive against Kurdish forces in northern Syria a week ago, two days after President Donald Trump suddenly announced he was withdrawing the U.S. military from the area. Trump was widely criticized for turning on the Kurds, who had taken heavy casualties as partners with the U.S. in fighting IS extremists since 2016.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the United States had accepted the idea of a “safe zone” long pushed by Turkey, and he insisted Turkish armed forces will control the zone. He also made clear that Turkey will not stop at a previously limited zone; he said Turkish control of the Syrian side of the border must extend all the way to the Iraqi border.

The commander of Kurdish-led forces in Syria, Mazloum Abdi, told Kurdish TV, “We will do whatever we can for the success of the cease-fire agreement.” But one Kurdish official, Razan Hiddo, declared that Kurdish people would refuse to live under Turkish occupation.

Trump had no reservations, hailing “a great day for civilization.”

“Everybody agreed to things that three days ago they would have never agreed to,” he told reporters. “That includes the Kurds. The Kurds are now much more inclined to do what has to be done. Turkey is much more inclined to do what has to be done.”

Trump seemed to endorse the Turkish aim of ridding the Syrian side of the border of the Kurdish fighters whom Turkey deems to be terrorists but who fought against IS on behalf of the U.S. “They had to have it cleaned out,” he said.

Leading U.S. lawmakers were less pleased than Trump.

Sen. Mitt Romney, the Republicans’ presidential nominee in 2012, said he welcomed the cease-fire but wanted to know what America’s role in the region would be and why Turkey was facing no consequences for its invasion.

“Further, the cease-fire does not change the fact that America has abandoned an ally,” he said on the Senate floor.

It was not clear whether the deal means the U.S. military will play a role in enabling or enforcing the cease-fire. Pence said the U.S. would “facilitate” the Kurds’ pullout, but he did not say if that would include the use of American troops.

The Pentagon had no immediate comment.

As Pence was speaking in Ankara, U.S. troops were continuing to board aircraft leaving northern Syria. Officials said a couple of hundred had already departed, with hundreds more consolidated at a few bases waiting to move out.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Trump confidant who has criticized the president’s pullout, said he thinks U.S. troops will be needed as part of an effort to implement and enforce a halt to the fighting. “There’s just no way around it,” he said. “We need to maintain control of the skies” and work with the Kurds.

While the cease-fire seemed likely to temporarily slow legislation in Congress aimed at punishing Turkey and condemning Trump’s U.S. troop withdrawal, lawmakers gave no sign of completely dropping the measures.

Shortly before the announcement of the pause in hostilities, Graham and Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., introduced legislation that would bar U.S. military aid to Turkey, seek to curb foreign arms sales to Ankara and impose sanctions on top Turkish officials unless Turkey withdraws its forces. Those sanctions would include a report on Erdogan’s family assets.

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