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Turning to Putin, Erdogan ignores U.S. agreement for northeastern Syria

As a cease-fire in northern Syria expired Tuesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two leaders announced a joint plan to evict Kurdish YPG fighters from northeast Syria -- displeasing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as well as the U.S. Nick Schifrin reports and joins special correspondent Jane Ferguson and Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The cease-fire between Turkey and Syrian Kurds expired earlier today, but was quickly replaced by a new agreement brokered by Vladimir Putin, not the United States.

    Now the fragile truce will continue, and, as Nick Schifrin reports, raising the question, where does this leave the U.S. and its Kurdish partners?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    With cameras flashing, Syria's top two power brokers met to discuss and divide Northeast Syria.

    In the Russian resort of Sochi, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sat down with host Russian President Vladimir Putin. After a six-hour meeting, Erdogan said Turkey, Russia, and the Syrian regime together would evict Kurdish fighters known as the YPG.

  • President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (through translator):

    YPG Terrorists and their arms will be taken farther than 30 kilometers from the border. Their fortifications and positions will be destroyed. Turkish and Russian joint patrols will begin.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That is not what the U.S. expected. Last week, the U.S. and Turkey negotiated a buffer zone 18 miles deep and 75 miles wide where Turkish forces, in blue, entered, and Kurdish forces retreated.

    And this is the area Turkey and Russia agreed to, the Syrian-Turkish border all the way to Iraq and the strategically important towns of Manbij and Tal Rifat, an expanse of more than 300 miles across.

    And after six days, the Turks and Russians promise joint patrols, indefinitely, within six miles of the border. Russian forces have backed and saved Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

    Today, Russian President Vladimir Putin called the agreement a permanent solution.

  • President Vladimir Putin (through translator):

    In my opinion, these decisions are very important, maybe even momentous, and will allow to resolve the situation.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But, today, Russian ally Assad met with his forces in Idlib, the final rebel stronghold. He called the agreement an illegal annexation.

  • President Bashar Al-Assad (through translator):

    Erdogan is a thief who stole the factories, stole wheat, stole oil in collaboration with ISIS, and now he is stealing the land.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The U.S. also objects. Today, the administration's point man on Syria, Ambassador James Jeffrey, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee the Russian-Turkish agreement increased instability.

  • James Jeffrey:

    And the process has scrambled the entire Northeast, undercut our efforts against ISIS, and brought in the Russians and the Syrian regime forces in a way that is really tragic for everybody involved.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The administration has promised to impose new sanctions on Turkey. Jeffrey didn't follow through on those threats, and instead called the Russian military paper tigers.

  • James Jeffrey:

    The ability to patrol with the Russians 10 kilometers deep, and a potentially not particularly believable Russian commitment to get the YPG out of that area. So, Turkey has not really gained all that much from this.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But it's not clear the U.S. can do anything about it. U.S. troops crossing from Syria into Iraq were dubbed traitors by Kurds, who up until last week called them partners.

    Today, the Pentagon said U.S. troops would move to Iraq to fight ISIS. but Iraq said those troops don't have permission to stay in the country.

    U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper promised not to keep them there forever.

  • Mark Esper:

    The aim isn't to stay in Iraq interminably. The aim is to pull our soldiers out and eventually get them back home.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today, the White House authorized $4.5 million to help the group known as the White Helmets, who try to protect civilians from Assad and Russian bombs.

    But while millions have already the regime, nearly 200,000 more civilians have now fled the Turkish incursion. Some have already left for Iraq. Others, like this group still in Eastern Syria, wait to cross the border.

  • Zainab Rassul (through translator):

    The future is gone. We left our future. I left and came here, just so we can save these children.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But it's too late to save many Kurdish forces who fought against ISIS and were killed by Turkish-backed troops. In total, more than 700 have been killed.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Nick joins me now here. And with us from Northern Iraq, special correspondent Jane Ferguson. She's on assignment there near the Syrian-Iraqi border.

    So, Jane, tell us. You have been talking to people there. How are people who live in that area affected by all these changes?

  • Jane Ferguson:

    As we heard there, Judy, from Nick's piece, up to 200,000 people have already fled that area.

    And what we're likely to see going forward is a great deal more people fleeing. There is huge uncertainty. Now, if this deal does bring an end to the fighting, that's only one facet for Kurds living in that area. They will be very afraid of the prospect of seeing within a week Turkish forces across the border.

    Although it won't be as deep across the border as Erdogan initially wanted, the full 20 miles, those six miles are still host to many Kurdish families. It's still part of the Kurdish heartland.

    So we're likely to see more people fleeing, both within Syria, being internally displaced, but also across the border here in Iraq. We have seen families arriving every day. And they're not just fleeing the fighting. They're fleeing the prospect of a potential Turkish occupation of their homeland.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Nick, what do these changes mean for the United States, the things that the U.S. has focused on, including those ISIS prisoners who were being held by Kurdish fighters?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, 10,000 ISIS prisoners, according to the U.S., are being held by Kurdish fighters.

    And for the first time today, we saw a senior U.S. official, Jim Jeffrey, who we saw in that piece, admit that, in his words, dozens, not hundreds, dozens of ISIS fighters have been released.

    Now, the Syrian Observatory, who tracks pretty much everything that happens in Syria, says that 800 ISIS family members have already been released. And Jeffrey admitted that he has no way, the U.S. has no way to track any of the ISIS fighters that have been released.

    He expressed confidence that the Kurds who are still guarding these prisons would still continue to do so. But he said that some of the prisons are inside the new Turkish-Russian safe zone. And he said he didn't know what was going to happen to those prisoners.

    And it's just a good reminder that ISIS remains a threat. The Pentagon itself, the inspector general just a few months ago said there were 18,000 ISIS members across Syria and Iraq and in Syria still establishing resurgent cells, basically trying to become an insurgency again.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And separately from this, Jane, back to that news conference today with Turkey's President Erdogan and Vladimir Putin of Russia.

    You were listening to that, along with us. And you were telling us you were hearing some of the finer points that were being made. What were you focused on?

  • Jane Ferguson:

    What was interesting, Judy, wasn't just what was said, but what wasn't said.

    Now, Erdogan has had extremely strong language in recent days talking about cracking skulls of the terrorists. But what we heard of today was this push to get YPG, or the Kurdish fighters, out of the 20-mile buffer zone.

    He was very specific about saying fighters. Now, he wasn't specifically saying Kurdish civilians. That's likely in response to a huge amount of concern and global concern and fear over ethnic cleansing of those areas, over a potential plan by Erdogan to sort of de-Kurdish the area, so to speak, because, in the background, you know, the context to all of this and this buffer zone and pushing these Kurdish fighters out is Erdogan's plan that he has talked about openly to resettle several million Syrian refugees, most of whom are Arabs in those areas, in what is the Kurdish heartland.

    So that has caused massive concern about whether or not that would clarify — or qualify as ethnic cleansing. Now, by saying that they want the Kurdish fighters out, they haven't really clarified what would happen to their families, the people — the communities that they come from that live in those areas.

    They have not talked about having any kind of peace deal or any kind of deal for the Kurdish fighters to put down their weapons. Instead, they have said they just want them to leave that entire area. Where that leaves the many, many other Kurdish families and civilians who are related to these fighters is not clear at this stage.

    And there's still a concern that there could be a huge ethnic shift in that area as a result of the organization of this deal and how it pans out in the coming months.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And it's so important, Nick, because, as Jane is saying, the Turks are saying, we're only concerned about the Kurdish fighters.

    But some are interpreting that as their being opposed to all people of Kurdish heritage.

    But, Nick, what I finally want to ask you about is how the map has changed. And the U.S. believed it had an understanding with Turkey about how far Turkey was going to go into Northern Syria. Now it appears the Turks may be going farther.

    What is the U.S. reaction going to be?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The Russian-Turkish safe zone is four times the size of the U.S.-Turkish safe zone.

    And, today, Kurdish fighters and Kurdish leaders said that the Turks were attacking them outside the agreed-upon U.S.-Turkish safe zone. So both of those are abrogations of the deal that Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo agreed with President Erdogan last week in Ankara. And the U.S. has vowed to sanction Turkey if Turkey acted beyond that deal.

    This morning, just a few hours before Jim Jeffrey testified, a senior administration official reiterated that to me and a few other reporters, saying, if the Turks violate our agreement, we no longer have an agreement to lift our sanctions and freeze our sanctions.

    So, there is a U.S. threat on the table that was made before the Russia-Turkey deal was announced. And we will see if the U.S. follows that up.

    Meanwhile, on the ground, Assad has more control over territory today. The Turkish gains have been cemented. And, of course, Russia has more influence diplomatically. And it's not clear the U.S. can do anything about it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Although they will say that we have had this understanding, it's not clear, as you say, where they go.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    It's up to the U.S. to follow through on its threat to punish Turkey for this. And we will see if they actually follow through on that threat.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And it's not only Russia winning here diplomatically, if you will. It's the Russian military.

    Jane, they're along the border between Syria and Iraq. You were telling us, as soon as the U.S. troops leave, it's the Russian troops coming in.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    It's been a remarkable turnaround, Judy, in just about a couple of weeks, since we have seen the announcement from President Trump that the U.S. troops would be pulling out, to now seeing Russian troops — not just Vladimir Putin negotiating this deal in Sochi, but, yes, Russian troops will soon be patrolling the entire border area up and down, all the way here to the Iraqi border.

    And it's been a massive turnaround. It can't be stressed enough how much of a reversal that is. We have, of course, seen images of Russian troops entering into hastily evacuated American bases along that border.

    And now we will see Russian boots along the ground, along the entire stretch of it. It really solidifies that military presence along an extremely strategically important area of the Middle East that cuts between Iraq and Lebanon.

    And the — we will see Russian boots on the ground there potentially indefinitely. There's been no mention of when they would leave, if ever.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Jane Ferguson, reporting from the Iraqi side of the Iraq-Syria border, Nick Schifrin here with me in Washington, thank you both.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thanks very much.

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