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Continued Turkish shelling adds confusion to start of 5-day ceasefire with Kurds

Fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a U.S.-allied Kurdish-led rebel group, patrol through the Islamic State-held village of Baghouz in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor. SDF officials have said the extremists are clinging to an area less than a square kilometer in the village of Baghouz and preventing more than 1,000 civilians from leaving the area. (Aboud Hamam/DPA/Zuma Press/TNS)
October 18, 2019

The sound of shelling and machine-gun fire could still be heard Friday along Syria’s border with Turkey despite a Turkish agreement Thursday to halt operations for five days.

Smoke could be seen rising from the Syrian border city of Ras al-Ayn on Friday morning, indicating a continued Turkish military attack on the city, according to Reuters. The continued fighting threatened to upend a tenuous peace between the Turkish military and the Kurdish-led Syrian Defense Force (SDF).

The ceasefire agreement established a 120-hour pause in a Turkish military offensive to establish a buffer zone along the Turkish-Syrian border. After President Donald Trump received backlash for pulling U.S. troops from Syria, Vice President Mike Pompeo and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to the Turkish capital of Ankara on Wednesday and had seemed to secure a tentative peace agreement from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan by Thursday.

Trump on Thursday praised the deal that he said would save “millions of lives.”

By contrast, the SDF said Turkish air and artillery attacks continued and targeted both SDF and civilian targets inRas al-Ayn.

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“Turkey is violating the ceasefire agreement by continuing to attack the town since last night,” SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said by Friday.

White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham assured reporters of Turkey’s commitment to the ceasefire even if it “takes time” to halt the fighting.

While the Turkish attacks could be heard in the early morning, the sounds of fighting had reportedly subsided by mid-morning.

“As of now, the 120-hour period is on. In this 120-hour period, the terrorist organization, the YPG, will leave the area we identified as a safe zone,” Erdogan said in a Friday statement.

Erdogan’s proposed safe zone includes a 32 km (20 mile) wide and 440 km (273 mile) long swath of land through northern Syria.

The agreement between Pence and Erdogan is meant to permit Kurdish fighters targeted by Turkey the chance to leave the Turkish zone of control after which a permanent ceasefire would be enacted and the U.S. would, in turn, end economic sanctions against Turkey.

“Our team is already working with YPG personnel in the safe zone for an orderly withdrawal outside the 20-mile mark and we’re going to go forward together to bring peace and security to this region, I’m very confident of that,” Pence said in his initial announcement of the ceasefire.

James Jeffrey, the U.S. special envoy for Syria, separately warned that the ceasefire agreement only applied to a portion of the overall Turkish safe zone.

Kurdish officials said the agreement only applies to a 120 km (74.5 mile) stretch between two border cities – Ras al-Ayn and Tal Abyad – where the bulk of the fighting between Turkey and the Kurdish fighters has been ongoing.

Jeffrey said Turkey is also negotiating with the Damascus and Moscow governments over control of areas not covered by the agreement between Ankara and Washington.

“We have a very convoluted situation now with Russian, Syrian army, Turkish, American, SDF and some Daesh (ISIS) elements all floating around in a very wild way,” Jeffrey said.

The recent Turkish offensive has raised the prospect of captured ISIS fighters escaping from Kurdish captivity amid the potential Kurdish displacement.