ISTANBUL — Vice President Mike Pence said Thursday that Turkey had agreed to a cease-fire in Syria, more than a week after the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan launched an offensive against Syrian Kurdish fighters who had previously allied with the United States.
Pence, speaking after hours of meetings in Ankara, the Turkish capital, with Erdogan and other Turkish officials, said Turkey had agreed to pause its offensive for five days while the United States helped facilitate the withdrawal of the Kurdish fighters from a swath of northeastern Syria.
Following their withdrawal, Turkey’s military operation would be “halted entirely,” Pence said.
“Great news out of Turkey,” President Donald Trump wrote on Twitter, shortly before Pence’s announcement. “Millions of lives will be saved!” he added.
Pence’s whirlwind trip to Turkey came just a week after the start of a military operation that had hastened the withdrawal of U.S. troops and scrambled alliances in Syria’s volatile civil war. Turkey’s western allies have warned Erdogan that the fighting could lead to the resurgence of the Islamic State militant group.
The Trump administration had faced criticism for the perception that it abandoned its own allies: the Syrian Kurdish militias who partnered with the U.S. military to fight the Islamic State. Turkey views the Kurdish fighters as a grave threat because of their links to militants in Turkey.
Pence said the Kurdish fighters would honor the deal struck between the United States and Turkey. “We have repeated assurances from them that they will be going out,” he said, referring to the Syrian Kurdish fighters.
Pence’s mission came a day after the White House made public a letter Trump had sent to Erdogan on Oct. 9 urging the Turkish leader to make a deal with the Syrian Kurdish militias that are the target of Ankara’s military operation.
“You don’t want to be responsible for slaughtering people,” Trump wrote, concluding: “Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!” The letter was written on the day Turkey’s military operation started. Turkish officials told the BBC and other news outlets Thursday that Erdogan threw the letter in the trash.
“But the most clear answer to the letter that was written on October 9 was the Peace Spring Operation,” CNN Turk reported, citing diplomatic sources and using Turkey’s code name for its offensive.
Erdogan had repeatedly rebuffed appeals for a cease-fire and chided Western allies for suggesting he negotiate with “terrorists,” as he refers to the Syrian Kurdish militias because of their links with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has fought an insurgency in Turkey for decades.
Erdogan said Wednesday that Turkey would “never declare a cease-fire” and vowed to forge ahead with plans to enforce a buffer zone as deep as 20 miles into Syrian territory. The swath of territory would stretch more than 280 miles from the northern city of Manbij to the Syrian border with Iraq.
Trump has faced criticism, including from his own Republican allies, amid reports of a rushed U.S. troop withdrawal.
On Wednesday, the U.S. military withdrew from Raqqa, the former de facto capital of the Islamic State, as well as Tabqa and a major headquarters at the Lafarge Cement Factory in Jalabiya, Col. Myles B. Caggins III, a U.S. military spokesman, said in a tweet.
At the cement factory, after American troops had left, U.S. forces used F-15 jets to carry out airstrikes on parts of the headquarters to “destroy an ammunition cache and reduce the facility’s military usefulness,” Caggins wrote.
In addition to the ammunition, the strikes targeted a small compound that was ringed with blast walls and included living quarters and diesel power generators, said a U.S. military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the operation.