The Denver Post

Trump declares victory in Syria

Critics say moves by U.S. expanded control of the region by Russia and Iran

- By Karen DeYoung, Erin Cunningham and Kareem Fahim

WASHINGTON» President Donald Trump said Wednesday that a “permanent” cease-fire had been establishe­d in northeaste­rn Syria, declaring a major diplomatic victory for his administra­tion even as Russian forces began moving into territory once controlled by the United States and its Syrian Kurdish allies.

The president said Turkish officials pledged to end their offensive in Syria and that he had ordered the lifting of sanctions imposed on Turkey this month.

“This was an outcome created by us, the United States, and nobody else, no other nation. Very simple,” he said.

Speaking in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House, Trump couched the agreement as part of his commitment to “a different course” in the Middle East, ending “endless wars” for which he has blamed his predecesso­rs.

“Let someone else fight over this long-bloodstain­ed sand,” he said.

Responding to those who he

had “scorned” him for abandoning the Kurds and capitulati­ng to Turkish demands, Trump said that “now people are saying, ‘Wow. What a great outcome. Congratula­tions.’ ”

But many of those critics, including Republican and Democratic lawmakers, were far from congratula­tory, charging that Trump had opened the door to a resurgence of the Islamic State and expanded control of the region by Russia and Iran, allies of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Trump, who announced the withdrawal of all U.S. troops in Syria two weeks ago, confirmed that a residual American force would remain near oil fields in eastern Syria.

That area is south of a line of control Turkey has drawn 20 miles inside Syria.

“We’re going to be protecting it, and we’ll be deciding what we’re going to do with it in the future,” he said. U.S. officials have said about 200 troops, out of a total of about 1,000, will remain, along with an additional 100-150 at a separate garrison in southern Syria near the Jordanian border.

Trump thanked Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, calling him “a man who loves his country” and said that Syrian Kurdish leader Gen. Mazloum Kobani Abdi had told him in a phone call that he was grateful for U.S. efforts.

In Twitter messages posted on Mazloum’s behalf, spokesman Mustafa Bali confirmed that gratitude and said Trump “promised to maintain” a partnershi­p with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. The SDF served as the main ground force in routing the Islamic State with U.S. weaponry and air cover, but Turkey considers it a terrorist organizati­on.

Mazloum also held a videoconfe­rence with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, posted online by Russian media.

Trump’s announceme­nt came at a hastily organized event at which he was flanked by Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser Robert O’Brien.

Trump sent the three on a whirlwind trip last week to Ankara after Turkey sent its troops across the border just days after a Trump-Erdogan telephone call. During a long afternoon of talks, they agreed to a deal in which Turkey was given a fiveday window to “pause” its operations in a 75-mile border strip in Syria to allow the exodus of Syrian Kurdish fighters. More than 160,000 civilians also fled from Turkish-allied Syrian militias and Turkish military bombardmen­t.

If the pause succeeded and the Kurdish fighters left, Erdogan agreed to a more permanent “halt” in the fighting. In exchange, the administra­tion agreed to drop existing sanctions and what Trump had promised would be even harsher economic measures.

Many critics were just as dismissive of Wednesday’s announced victory as they were of the deal.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who last week, along with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and others, co-sponsored a bill to impose legislativ­e sanctions on Turkey, said Trump’s “celebratio­n ... represents his total sursaid render of American leadership and the treacherou­s betrayal of our Syrian Kurdish allies.”

On Twitter, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said, in an apparent reference to the limited geography of the U.S.-Turkey cease-fire deal, said that Erdogan “has NOT agreed to stop all military operations in Syria.” Russia, which on Tuesday signed a deal with Turkey to take control of hundreds more miles of Syrian territory along the border, “is going to remove Kurdish forces” from that area, “including Kurdish cities,” and “take control of five oil fields.”

Others referred to the likelihood of an Islamic State resurgence as the Kurds look for new alliances and their U.S. mentors and protectors withdraw. Already, administra­tion officials have reported “dozens” or more escapes from Kurdish-held prisons in Syria. Trump said that “a few got out — a small number, relatively speaking — and they’ve been largely recaptured.”

Graham, a Trump ally who said last week that Erdogan should be treated like “the thug he is,” stepped back from his sharp criticism, tweeting that “this cease-fire, if permanent, represents real progress.” He stressed the importance of maintainin­g control of the Syrian oil fields.

Once again, Syrian President Bashar Assad has snapped up a prize from world powers that have been maneuverin­g in his country’s wars on multiple fronts. Without firing a shot, his forces are returning to towns and villages in northeaste­rn Syria where they haven’t set foot for years.

Assad was handed one victory by U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from northeaste­rn Syria, analysts said. Then he got another from a deal struck between Turkey and Russia, Damascus’ ally.

Abandoned by U.S. forces and staring down the barrel of a Turkish invasion, Kurdish fighters had no option but to turn to Assad’s government and to Russia for protection from their No. 1 enemy.

For once, the interests of Damascus, Moscow and Ankara came into alignment. Turkey decided it was better having Assad’s forces along the border, being helped by Russia, than to have the frontier populated by Kurdish-led fighters, whom it considers to be terrorists.

On Tuesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan struck a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin that allows Syrian troops to move back into a large part of the territory and ensure Kurdish fighters stay out.

The Kurds once hoped an alliance with Washington would strengthen their ambitions for autonomy, but now they are left hoping they can extract concession­s from Moscow and Damascus to keep at least some aspects of their self-rule.

Turkey, which had backed rebels trying to oust Assad, has now implicitly given the Syrian leader “de facto recognitio­n,” said Lina Khatib, head of the Middle East and North Africa program at

Chatham House.

“Assad and Russia see this recognitio­n as the beginning of internatio­nal community normalizat­ion with the Assad regime and, as such, an indication of their victory in the war,” she said.

It’s a method that Assad has used successful­ly before, positionin­g himself as the lesser of two evils in the eyes of those who might want him gone. Throughout Syria’s civil war, he has presented the conflict as a choice between him and jihadis. Fear of the extremists watered down enthusiasm in Washington and other Western government­s for fully backing the rebels.

“Assad has been benefiting from two narratives: shaping the Syrian uprising as a regional war and reminding that there is no viable alternativ­e to his rule,” said Joe Macaron, a resident fellow at the Arab Center in Washington.

Trump’s “America First” policy, with its sometimes chaotic and impulsive shifts, has been a godsend for Assad.

Last year, Trump called Assad an “animal” after a suspected chemical weapons attack near Damascus, carrying out limited airstrikes as punishment.

But the U.S. president has repeatedly said he’s not interested in removing Assad from power or keeping American troops involved in “endless wars” in the region’s “blood-soaked sands.” He has welcomed having Russia and Assad’s government fill the void.

Backing from Russia and Iran also has enabled Assad to simply outlast his opponents. With the help of Russian airstrikes since 2015, the Syrian military has recaptured town after town from the rebels. Abandoned and exhausted, the insurgents have repeatedly submitted to deals with Assad that allowed them to leave their besieged enclaves with safe passage to the north.

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