Is the conditional cease-fire in northern Syria too good to be true?

Turkey-backed Syrian rebels drive on top of a truck to cross into Syria, near the border town of Akcakale in Sanliurfa province, Turkey, on Thursday. (Reuters)
Updated 19 October 2019

Is the conditional cease-fire in northern Syria too good to be true?

  • If truce conditions are not met, Turkey will relaunch Syria operation ‘in a more decisive manner’

ANKARA: The surprise cease-fire deal between US Vice President Mike Pence and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara has brought a new dimension to the dynamics in northern Syria. Turkey launched the cross-border offensive last week after US President Donald Trump announced he was pulling US forces out of the Syria-Turkey border region.
Ankara’s goal is to push back a Kurdish militia group — the People’s Protection Units (YPG) — that it sees as a terrorist organization. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — a group dominated by the YPG — fought with the US against Daesh in Syria.
On Thursday evening Turkey agreed to a 120-hour pause in military operations against the YPG militia for the next five days to give Kurdish troops time to withdraw from a proposed “safe zone” along its border.
Ankara has agreed to a permanent cease-fire once the withdrawal is complete, Pence told reporters in Ankara after his meeting with Turkish officials.
In return, the US will not impose further sanctions on Turkey and remove the ones imposed last week, although there is still a risk that a bipartisan group of US senators will press ahead with new sanctions.
Erdogan is due to meet President Vladimir Putin in Russia on Tuesday, where further talks are expected about Turkey’s safe zone plans.
“I consider my meeting with President Putin as another element of this (safe zone) process,” Erdogan said Friday. “Turkey wouldn’t be bothered by Assad regime control in towns like Manbij, Kobani and Qamishli if the YPG is completely cleared out.” The question remains whether the cease-fire will hold.
In comments to local television on Thursday night, the SDF’s Gen. Mazloum Kobani said the deal only applied to the area between the towns of Tal Abyad and Ras Al-Ain.
Erdogan announced on Friday that if the conditions in the agreement were not met during the 120 hour-pause, Turkey would relaunch Operation Peace Spring “in a more decisive manner.”
Selim Sazak, a doctoral researcher at Brown University and the research director of Ankara-based consulting firm TUM Strategy, believed the agreement would be implemented and the YPG would withdraw.

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Erdogan is due to meet President Vladimir Putin in Russia on Tuesday, where further talks are expected about Turkey’s safe zone plans.

“The agency of the YPG is fairly limited. If the deal collapses because of the YPG, it’s actually all the better for Ankara,” he told Arab News.
“What Ankara originally wanted was to take all of the belt into its control and eliminate as many of the YPG forces as possible. Instead, the YPG is withdrawing with a portion of its forces and its territory intact. Had the deal collapsed because of the YPG, Ankara would have reason to push forward, this time with much more legitimacy.”

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Tal Abyad and Ras Al-Ain were the easiest link in the second phase of Turkey’s Syrian operation and with the same tactic, he added.
“On the west of the Euphrates, Ankara began by drawing a wedge in the YPG-controlled territory via the Arab-dominant Jarablus and Al-Bab and then opened the wedge toward Afrin on the east and Manbij on the west. The same is happening here. Drive a wedge through Ras Al-Ain and Tal Abyad, open it up toward Kobani on the west and Qamishli on the east.”

Ultimate goal
Sazak said he believed that Ankara was sincere about not having territorial ambitions.
“Its ultimate goal is for the YPG to be pushed away from the border. If that’s the case, it doesn’t matter who controls Kobani or Manbij so long as it’s not the YPG. In the short run, it gives Ankara more time, but in the long run it is probably not an ideal position.”
Dareen Khalifa, a senior Syria analyst at the International Crisis Group, said the cease-fire had unclear goals.
There was no mention of the scope of the area that would be under Turkish control and, despite Pence referring to a 32-km zone in his speech, the length of the zone remains ambiguous, she said.
“It’s unclear if the US only agreed to what (the US special representative on Syria) James Jeffrey and Mazloum described — the 110-km area currently under Turkish control — or to YPG withdrawal from the entire zone, which is over 400 km along the Turkish border,” she told Arab News.
“If it is the former and the YPG is expected only to leave the area where Turkey is already at, then the agreement might stall over divergent interpretations from both sides. I don’t expect Turkey to settle for less when they could push for more.”
Khalifa said if it was the latter and the US agreed to a full YPG withdrawal from a 30-km area along the entire 400-km border strip then the US, in search for a face-saving deal, has decided to capitulate to Turkish demands and claim it is a deal reached through negotiations.


Man shot dead as Lebanese army disperse protesters

Updated 23 min 10 sec ago

Man shot dead as Lebanese army disperse protesters

  • The death is the second during the nationwide protests that have paralyzed the country

BEIRUT: A man was shot dead south of Beirut after the army opened fire to disperse protesters blocking roads, Lebanese state media said Wednesday, nearly a month into an unprecedented anti-graft street movement.
The victim “succumbed to his injuries” in hospital, the National News Agency said, the second death during the nationwide protests that have paralyzed the country.
The army said in a statement that it had arrested a soldier after he opened fire in the coastal town of Khalde, just below the capital, to clear protesters “injuring one person.”
Protesters have been demanding the ouster of a generation of politicians seen by demonstrators as inefficient and corrupt, in a movement that has been largely peaceful.
On Tuesday night, street protests erupted after President Michel Aoun defended the role of his allies, the Shiite movement Hezbollah, in Lebanon’s government.
Protesters responded by cutting off several major roads in and around Beirut, the northern city of Tripoli and the eastern region of Bekaa.
The Progressive Socialist Party, led by influential Druze politician Walid Jumblatt, said in a statement that the man shot dead was one its members.
A long-time opponent of President Michel Aoun, Jumblatt appealed to his supporters to stay calm.
“In spite of what happened, we have no other refuge than the state. If we lose hope in the state, we enter chaos,” he said.
The government stepped down on October 29 but stayed on in a caretaker capacity and no overt efforts have so far been made to form a new one, as an economic crisis brings the country to the brink of default.
On Tuesday morning, dozens of protesters had gathered near the law courts in central Beirut and tried to stop judges and lawyers from going to work, demanding an independent judiciary.
Employees at the two main mobile operators, Alfa and Touch, started a nationwide strike.
Many schools and universities were closed, as were banks after their employees called for a general strike over alleged mistreatment by customers last week.

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The UN’s special coordinator for the country, Jan Kubis, urged Lebanon to accelerate the formation of a new government that would be able “to appeal for support from Lebanon’s international partners.”
“The financial and economic situation is critical, and the government and other authorities cannot wait any longer to start addressing it,” he said.
The leaderless protest movement first erupted after a proposed tax on calls via free phone apps, but it has since morphed into an unprecedented cross-sectarian outcry against everything from perceived state corruption to rampant electricity cuts.
Demonstrators say they are fed up with the same families dominating government institutions since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.
In his televised address on Tuesday, Aoun proposed a government that includes both technocrats and politicians.
“A technocratic government can’t set the policies of the country” and would not “represent the people,” he said in the interview on Lebanese television.
Asked if he was facing pressure from outside Lebanon not to include the Iran-backed Hezbollah in a new government, he did not deny it.
But, he said, “they can’t force me to get rid of a party that represents at least a third of Lebanese,” referring to the weight of the Shiite community.
The latest crisis in Lebanon comes at a time of high tensions between Iran and the United States, which has sanctioned Hezbollah members in Lebanon.
Forming a government typically takes months in Lebanon, with protracted debate on how best to maintain a fragile balance between religious communities.
The World Bank says around a third of Lebanese live in poverty and has warned the country’s struggling economy could further deteriorate if a new cabinet is not formed rapidly.