Syria ceasefire 'holding' despite sporadic fighting between Turkey and Kurds

Raf Sanchez
 A young Syrian girl fleeing with her family from northern Syria - AFP

Sporadic fighting between Turkish and Kurdish forces continued in a key border town in northeastern Syria on Friday but officials from both sides said a US-brokered ceasefire appeared to be largely holding.   

There were reports of continued shelling and small arms fire in the town of Ras al-Ain, despite commitments by both Turkey and the Kurds to a five-day ceasefire negotiated by US vice president Mike Pence. 

However, the rest of the Syrian-Turkish border appeared quiet and both Kurdish and Turkish officials said they believed the agreement was largely holding. “The fighting has stopped in almost all the places,” said Kino Gabriel, a spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). 

Ilnur Cevik, an advisor to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told the BBC: “[The Kurds] are still throwing some rockets into Turkey but in general it is holding.”

Under the terms of the deal, there will be a five-day pause in fighting while Kurdish forces withdraw from the border, an arrangement that hands Turkey most of what it was looking to achieve with its military offensive. 

Mike Pence announced the deal after meeting Recep Tayyip Erdogan   Credit: REUTERS/Huseyin Aldemir

However, the two sides appeared to have different interpretations of which areas Kurdish forces would withdraw from. Turkey said the Kurds must withdraw from all parts of the Turkish border, while the Kurds said the deal applied to only a 120km strip between Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad. 

Meanwhile, Donald Trump drew criticism for his crowing performance at a political rally in Texas last night, where he compared the Turks and Kurds to children fighting in a park and said “a little tough love” was needed to broker a deal. 

"Sometimes you have to let them fight, like two kids in a lot. You have to let them fight, and then you pull them apart,” he said, calling the ceasefire deal “an amazing outcome”. 

Mr Trump referred to Mr Erdoğan as “a gentleman” and said the Turkish president’s visit to Washington next month would go ahead despite the bloodshed in northeast Syria. 

Brett McGurk, who served under Mr Trump as coordinator of the coalition against the Islamic State (Isil), called the president's comments “obscene and ignorant”. 

More than a hundred civilians have been killed on both sides of the border since the fighting began and around 200,000 people have been displaced from their homes. 

Amnesty International said Friday that Turkey and its Syrian rebel allies had “displayed a shameful disregard for civilian life” and committed “serious violations and war crimes” during the course of the offensive. 

The human rights group pointed to Turkish bombing of a school and bakery, as well as killings committed by Syrian rebel forces of unarmed Kurdish civilians. 

“Turkish military forces and their allies have displayed an utterly callous disregard for civilian lives,” said Kumi Naidoo, secretary general of Amnesty International.

Mr Cevik, the Turkish official, discounted the criticism as “black propaganda” and said Turkish forces had deliberately advanced slowly in urban areas to minimise civilian casualties. 

The ceasefire deal was announced Thursday night after hours of talks between Mr Erdoğan and Mr Pence. 

A Turkish-backed Syrian fighter stands at attention in the Syrian border town of Tal Abyad  Credit: BAKR ALKASEM/AFP via Getty Images

The agreement states that Turkish troops will stop attacking for 120 hours while Kurdish forces withdraw away from the border. Once the withdrawal is complete, Turkey will call an overall halt to its military operation. 

In return, the US has agreed to withdraw sanctions it imposed on Turkey earlier in the week. 

The agreement effectively hands Turkey the major objective of its military attack: pushing the Kurds away from the Turkish border. Turkish officials boasted after the talks: “We got everything we wanted.” 

Jim Jeffrey, the current head of the anti-Isil coalition, said the US believed Kurdish forces had no real chance of holding onto their territory in the face of an onslaught by Turkey’s modern military. 

“It is our assessment that they have no military ability to hold onto these areas and therefore we thought that a ceasefire would be much better,” he said. 

Mazloum Kobani Abdi, the head of the SDF, said in a speech on Friday that his forces had agreed to the ceasefire. 

“There has been bitter war for the past nine days. Many of our civilians lost their lives, and thousands of people have been driven out as refugees. The ceasefire is for this region, and we accept it in this sense,” he said. 

“Whatever we can do as SDF to make this ceasefire work, we will do.”