At home, President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are under siege.
The White House is not cooperating with the impeachment inquiry. A handful of the State Department’s career employees are in revolt, testifying to Congress that elements in and around the administration are engaged in rogue diplomacy. Congress is uniformly opposed to Trump’s foreign policy in Syria, and Republicans have broken away in droves.
Yet here, in this capital city, the Trump administration was able to notch a modest victory: a temporary end to the bloodshed in Syria. Over more than four hours of negotiations — some 90 minutes of which was Pence and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan one on one — the two sides agreed to a pause in violence for 120 hours so that Kurdish forces could withdraw from a “safe zone” along the border. The United States agreed it would hold off on new sanctions, and remove existing sanctions.
Erdogan is scheduled to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on October 22 — exactly five days from now.
In some sense, the bar was set quite low. The United States is not reengaging militarily in Syria, Pence said, speaking from the American ambassador’s residence here. He put his modest charge this way: “President Trump sent us here to end the violence and to achieve an immediate cease-fire. Thanks to the agreement that we negotiated today and the strong stand that President Trump took, in the preceding days, we’ve achieved that.”
“This is a situation where everybody is happy” — Donald Trump, U.S. president
The president, speaking in Texas ahead of a political rally, was far more expansive. He hailed the deal as “an amazing outcome” that saved “millions and millions of lives.”
“This is a situation where everybody is happy,” Trump said. “The Kurds are very happy. Turkey is very happy. The United States is very happy. And, you know what? Civilization is very happy. It’s a great thing for civilization.”
Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a close Trump ally who had stridently criticized the president’s handling of the Turkish intervention, called the deal “real progress” and a “breakthough,” though he did not pull a proposed sanctions bill co-sponsored by Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).
But Middle East analysts were less impressed. “This is more than Turkey ever wanted from the U.S.,” said Hassan Hassan, a Syria expert at the Center for Global Policy. “At least since 2015, Turkey had tried to get American concessions over specific towns, like Manbij and Raqqa. This is a wholesale concession. Erdogan without a doubt got more than he bargained for: the end of the Kurdish project and the U.S. withdrawal in northern Syria.”
Only 24 hours earlier, Trump’s gambit to send Pompeo and Pence to Ankara had alarmed some in the administration.
Their charge was to notch a cease-fire with Erdoğan, the man who started the conflict in northern Syria and showed no desire to end it. In public statements, he rejected the notion of a cease-fire, and there was fear in the administration that Pence would head home and Pompeo go on to Jerusalem empty-handed. And, by that narrow measure, the nine-hour trip to Turkey was successful.
Over the next five days, Turkey will halt its military operations while the YPG — the Kurdish military group whose muscle was crucial to crushing the Islamic State — leaves the safe zone. The Syrian Defense Forces are already leaving the Syrian border region, Pence said. Turkey will not engage militarily in Kobani, a Kurdish-majority Syrian city whose desperate stand against ISIS was where the U.S. alliance with Syria’s Kurds was forged in blood.
According to a fact sheet passed out to reporters, the U.S. also reaffirmed Turkey’s good standing in NATO, a subject of heated commentary back in Washington, and the two countries committed to preserving Syria’s territorial integrity.
There were some small signs for hope all day. Pence and Erdogan held the first meeting one on one, with envoy Jim Jeffrey — a longtime Middle East hand — serving as the translator for the U.S. side. The meeting was scheduled to last for just 10 minutes, aides said, but it stretched to nearly an hour and a half.
Afterward, reporters were escorted into a conference room where Erdoğan and his advisers were meeting Pence, Pompeo and their team. U.S. officials made sure to note that this mere fact — American reporters entering the inner chambers of the Turkish president — was monumental in and of itself.
At around 7:15 p.m. in Ankara, four hours after Pence and Pompeo entered the presidential palace, the Turks started to bring food for hungry aides and reporters.
“We can bring certainly most of our people back home for the first time in many years” — Donald Trump
But almost immediately, Turkish crews began setting up cameras. And Pence and Pompeo were readying to leave the palace for the ambassador’s residence to announce the framework of the agreement.
Pence and Pompeo took a handful of questions from reporters before yielding the spotlight to Trump, who praised their efforts — and his own — upon landing in Fort Worth.
“Frankly, the thing I’m most happy about,” he said, was the speed of the agreement. “I took a lot of heat, but that we were able to do it so fast. I thought this would go on for longer. This was such a smart thing to get it done so fast.”
And he insisted that the “unconventional” deal wouldn’t have been possible without the dramatic events of recent days.
“Turkey wouldn’t have done this three days ago,” he said. The Kurds would not have done it three days ago. This is a situation where everybody is happy. And I’m happy, because there’s no fighting. We can bring certainly most of our people back home for the first time in many years.”