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Fighting abates in northern Syria, but political and humanitarian crises endure

The battleground in northeastern Syria appears to be quieting, after a cease-fire between Turkish forces and Kurdish fighters got off to a rocky start. But will Turkey keep its word -- and was the U.S. pullout from the region appropriate? President Trump's decision to withdraw troops has drawn bipartisan condemnation, with Sen. Mitch McConnell calling it a “grave mistake.” Amna Nawaz reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The battleground in northeastern Syria appears to be quieting tonight. A cease-fire between Turkish forces and Kurdish fighters is trying to take hold, after getting off to a rocky start.

    Meanwhile, President Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria is bring more bipartisan condemnation on Capitol Hill.

    Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell today wrote an opinion article for The Washington Post, calling the decision a grave mistake.

    Amna Nawaz has our report.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Thick plumes of smoke billowed above the Syrian border town of Ras al-Ayn this morning, hours after the cease-fire officially began. Activists and a Syrian war monitor said Turkish troops shelled Kurdish forces, but reports from the area said fighting largely subsided by midday.

    In Istanbul, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan denied any fighting had continued.

  • President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (through translator):

    I do not know where you receive information from, but, according to the ones I get from my defense minister, there are no ongoing clashes. All of these are speculations and misinformation.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And in Washington, President Trump also said, after speaking with Erdogan, the cease-fire was holding.

  • President Donald Trump:

    There was some sniper fire this morning. There was mortar fire this morning. That was eliminated quickly. And they're back to the full pause.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Mr. Trump also claims that the five-day cease-fire will save — quote — "millions of lives."

    The Turks cast it as a complete victory that grants them a 20-mile-wide so-called safe zone in northeastern Syria free of Syrian Kurdish fighters and stretching to the Iraqi frontier. Erdogan insisted today, what happens next is up to the Kurds and the U.S.

  • President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (through translator):

    If the United States is able to keep the promises it gave us, the issue of a safe zone will have been resolved. But if this promise is not kept, our operation will resume from where it left off in an even more determined way.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Already, U.N. chemical weapons inspectors are investigating reports that the Turkish military used white phosphorous munitions this week, severely burning a number of children.

    In Brussels today, the head of the European Union Council, Donald Tusk, called for Turkey to immediately halt its operation for good.

  • Donald Tusk:

    This is not what we expected. In fact, it's not a cease-fire. It's a demand of capitulation of the Kurds.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Last night, at a rally in Texas, President Trump likened the Turkish offensive against the Kurds to children squabbling.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Sometimes, you have to let them fight. Like two kids in a lot, you got to let them fight. And then you pull them apart.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But that fighting has also triggered another humanitarian crisis in Syria. The United Nations Refugee Agency reports some 166,000 civilians, many of them Syrian Kurds, have fled the violence. About 1,000 of the displaced crossed into northern Iraq.

  • Abdul-Hakim Hussein (through translator):

    We don't trust Turkey or the cease-fire agreement. They are talking about a cease-fire while the bombardment is still going on.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Back in Washington, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said today that U.S. forces are continuing their withdrawal from northeastern Syria. And he said the troops will not be helping to enforce the Turkish safe zone.

    Meanwhile, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in Jerusalem meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Pompeo sought to reaffirm U.S. support, even as President Trump vows to reduce the overall American troop presence in the Middle East.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Amna Nawaz.

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