The US Syria withdrawal Oct 6-23: Documents, maps and confusion
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
On October 6, 2019 US President Donald Trump announced the US would withdraw from part of Syria, paving the way for a Turkish and Turkish-backed Syrian rebel offensive into areas controlled by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.
What follows are documents and details from the two weeks after the October 6 decision, until the Russia-Turkey deal on October 22.
The October 6 statement:
Today, President Donald J. Trump spoke with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey by telephone. Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria. The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in the operation, and United States forces, having defeated the ISIS territorial “Caliphate,” will no longer be in the immediate area.
The United States Government has pressed France, Germany, and other European nations, from which many captured ISIS fighters came, to take them back, but they did not want them and refused. The United States will not hold them for what could be many years and great cost to the United States taxpayer. Turkey will now be responsible for all ISIS fighters in the area captured over the past two years in the wake of the defeat of the territorial “Caliphate” by the United States.
Turkey had already named its offensive, and presented its "safe zone" plan at the United Nations in September. It had already gotten the US to ask the SDF to remove fortifications in the area of the "security mechanism (see map)" during August and September. It had conducted joint patrols with the US and overflights. It had also inaugurated a Syrian National Army of various extremist and Syrian rebel groups that would participate.
On October 9 Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wrote "Our aim is to destroy the terror corridor which is trying to be established on our southern border and to bring peace and peace to the region."
The SDF warned of a "humanitarian catastrophe" that could be "inflicted on our people in northern and eastern Syria."
Masoud Barzani, former president of the KRG and head of the KDP wrote on October 9 "Dear President Trump, please know that the people of Kurdistan have always pursued their just rights. The Peshmerga have defeated ISIS and are an effective part of the coalition against terror. The blood of the Kurds is far more valuable than money and weapons. Thank you."
On October 10 as Turkish airstrikes took place and extremist groups backed by Turkey sought to cut off avenues of retreat from Sere Kaniye, the US took two detainee members of the ISIS cell known as the "Beatles" into custody and moved them abroad.
October 12, Future Party Kurdish activist and leader Hevrin Khalaf dragged from her car by Turkish-backed groups and murdered.
SDF officials and members of the SDC sought support from the US but, according to reports, State Department officials yelled at them and suggested they work with extremist groups that had just murdered prisoners and Hevrin Khalaf, a Kurdish activist. “On the killing of Havrin Khalaf, the Department responded to reporters’ inquiries on the day of her death, October 12, noting that we found it deeply troubling and condemned any mistreatment and extrajudicial execution of civilians or prisoners,” a spokesperson said. Khalaf had met with Deputy Special Envoy William Roebuck before her murder at the hands of Turkish-backed rebels. Turkish media called her murder a "successful operation."
The SDF under Gen. Mazlum continued to press the US for answers on October 12 to get the Turkish offensive to stop. By this time more than 100,000 had already fled and 1,700 refugees had begun crossing into northern Iraq.
October 13: SDF agreed for Syrian regime to deploy border guards.
Memorandum of Understanding. On 13/10/2019. A meeting took place between representatives of the Syrian government and the Syrian Democratic Forces. The SDF agreed to the entry of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and the SAA control will extend over the entire region, starting from Ayn Diwar in the east until Jarablus in the west. SAA forces will be moving into SDF territory using three axis: From Tabqa in northern direction towards Ayn Issa and its countryside. Also in northern direction towards Syrian Turkish border at Tell Abyad and towards the west.
A second axis from Manbij into the direction of Ayn al Arab [Kobani] on Syrian Turkish border until Tell Abyad and towards the west.
Third axis from Hasakah to Tall Tamr, arriving in Ras al Ayn and towards the east arriving in Qamishli and then Al Malikiyah and towards the south. The SAA forces will spread in the Manbij region, starting from Arima and along the Sajur river, sticking to previous deals regarding the distribution of forces in Arima. By that, the SAA will be present in the entire region east and north of the Euphrates and in coordination with local military councils, while area between Ras al Ayn and Tell Abyad stays as an unstable combat zone until it is liberated. The SDF confirmed they are prepared to preserve the territorial unity of the Syrian Arab Republic and are under the flag of Syrian Arab Republic. They will stand by the SAA in confronting Turkish threats to Syrian land under leadership of President Bashar al-Assad.
US envoy James Jeffrey noted on October 17 the US would not oppose the agreement.
Trump, on October 18 said he "just spoke to President Erdogan of Turkey. He told me there was minor sniper and mortar fire that was quickly eliminated. He very much wants the ceasefire, or pause, to work. Likewise, the Kurds want it, and the ultimate solution, to happen."
Rumors, first appearing on October 14, indicated that there were several elements to the SDF-Syrian government agreement, These included the following, as reported by Danny Makki and others.
These are the main points in the agreement between the SDF and the Syrian government.
1. The abolishment of the SDF with all the current Kurdish forces and military groups joining the 5th Corps (Assault Legion) under Russian control. 2. A solid guarantee of full Kurdish rights in the new Syrian constitution with autonomy which will be agreed upon by Kurdish leadership & Syrian state. 3. Joint coordinated effort by Syrian/Kurdish forces to remove Turkish presence in northern Syria including Afrin (Idlib not included) 4. Manbej and Kobani were agreed upon for Syrian Army to enter immediately, whilst Hasakeh has seen a wide scale deployment of Syrian troops, this will continue in Qamishly and other joint areas.
6. Within one month Kurdish leadership with start to take up some official roles within the current Syrian government to ease the transition period of N. Syria until a new constitution/government is formed in the future.
With Syrian forces now on the border area with Turkey it's clear that this starts a new phase in the 8-year-long war where some sort of endgame is now taking shape - all border areas and administrational centres will be taken over by the Syrian government.
Within days the US team of Pence and Pompeo arrived to meet Erdogan and seek what they called a "ceasefire." Turkey called it a 120 hour "pause" in operations. Gen. Mazlum said that Trump has assured him "there would not be a massacre against the Kurds...I call on President Trump to fulfill his promise," Kobani said. "I want him to stay committed to his words."
The October 17 ceasefire came out of negotiations in Ankara led by Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien. It noted:
Turkey is implementing an immediate ceasefire. The two governments committed to safeguard religious and ethnic minorities. Both governments are increasing cooperation to help detain ISIS fighters. Relations between the United States and long-standing NATO ally Turkey have been bolstered.
The final statement had 13 points, of which:
The Turkish side will pause Operation Peace Spring in order to allow the withdrawal of YPG from the safe zone within 120 hours. Operation Peace Spring will be halted upon completion of this withdrawal.
This agreement is the result of President Donald Trump’s forthright leadership over the past week and the successful negotiations in Ankara led by Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, backed by a team of skilled and dedicated diplomats and military officers.
The result of the pause was that US troops also began withdrawing towards northern Iraq. Already international NGOs and some media had left because the regime had returned to some areas. Civilians protested the US and threw tomatoes at US vehicles on October 21.
On October 22, after five hours of meetings in Sochi, Putin and Erdogan agreed to the following:
President of the Republic of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President of The Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin agreed on the following points:
1. The two sides reiterate their commitment to the preservation of the political unity and territorial integrity of Syria and the protection of national security of Turkey.
2. They emphasize their determination to combat terrorism in all forms and manifestations and to disrupt separatist agendas in the Syrian territory.
3. In this framework, the established status quo in the current Operation Peace Spring area covering Tel Abyad and Ras Al Ayn with a depth of 32 km will be preserved.
4. Both sides reaffirm the importance of the Adana Agreement. The Russian Federation will facilitate the implementation of the Adana Agreement in the current circumstances.
5. Starting 12.00 noon of October 23, 2019, Russian military police and Syrian border guards will enter the Syrian side of the Turkish-Syrian border, outside the area of Operation Peace Spring, to facilitate the removal of YPG elements and their weapons to the depth of 30 km from the Turkish-Syrian border, which should be finalized in 150 hours. At that moment, joint Russian-Turkish patrols will start in the west and the east of the area of Operation Peace Spring with a depth of 10 km, except Qamishli city.
6. All YPG elements and their weapons will be removed from Manbij and Tal Rifat.
7. Both sides will take necessary measures to prevent infiltrations of terrorist elements.
8. Joint efforts will be launched to facilitate the return of refugees in a safe and voluntary manner.
9. A joint monitoring and verification mechanism will be established to oversee and coordinate the implementation of this memorandum.
10. The two sides will continue to work to find a lasting political solution to the Syrian conflict within Astana Mechanism and will support the activity of the Constitutional Committee.
A map of the area.
US Envoy James Jeffrey spoke at a Senate hearing on October 23-24. On October 23 Trump took credit for the ceasefire. "“The government of Turkey informed my administration that they would be stopping combat and their offensive in Syria, and making the ceasefire permanent....I have, therefore, instructed the secretary of the Treasury to lift all sanctions imposed October 14." Im the past he claimed Kurds were safe but he also compared the fighting to kids on a playground. "Let someone else fight over this long-bloodstained sand." Trump wrote "ig success on the Turkey/Syria Border. Safe Zone created! Ceasefire has held and combat missions have ended. Kurds are safe and have worked very nicely with us. Captured ISIS prisoners secured. I will be making a statement at 11:00 A.M. from the White House. Thank you!"
Gen Mazlum said "I just spoke with President Trump and explained to him the Turkish violations of the truce that would not have been possible without his great efforts. We THANK President Trump for his tireless efforts that stopped the brutal Turkish attack and jihadist groups on our people."
Trump thanks Mazlum for his courage and said he looked forward to meeting him.
Concern turned to how the complex space in eastern Syria might be settled. While Jeffrey felt only around 100 ISIS members had escaped out of the 10,000 being held and 14,000 already at large. The SDF felt the number was a bit low. The overall numbers of ISIS detainees is not clear. There were thought to be "The S.D.F. prisons for male detainees — about 1,000 men from nearly 50 countries," and 50,000 women and children at Al-Hol.
Between October 18 and 22 the US began to articulate a new strategy of staying in southern Syria where Trump said the US would "secure the oil." This also appeared to dovetail with blocking Iranian influence.