Pompeo downplays concerns about Syria ceasefire

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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (left) and Vice President Mike Pence negotiated a pause in Turkey’s incursion into northeast Syria during four hours of negotiation in Ankara on Thursday. | Getty Images

ABOARD THE SECRETARY OF STATE’S PLANE — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo forcefully defended the cease-fire agreement the United States brokered in Syria, brushed back accusations that the Kurds were sold out and said, despite reports of fighting Friday, he is “confident” that a pause in violence will take hold.

In an interview with POLITICO in his cabin on a flight from Tel Aviv to Brussels, Pompeo said the United States “still has the commitments” from leaders that the cease-fire agreement he cut with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Thursday in Ankara, Turkey, would take effect, despite new reports from the region that violence was still flaring.

“There’s not perfect command and control,” Pompeo said, sitting at his desk aboard his modified Boeing 757 jet. “You have irregular forces in the region, as well. I don’t know precisely what this is, but our sense is, the political commitments that were made yesterday will end up being successful. We also have reporting that fighting forces in and around the two towns — that the [Syrian Defense Forces] are actually beginning their departure. So the key elements of the cease-fire look to be taking effect.”

Pompeo added: “You always want it to happen faster, cleaner in a more straightforward way. But we have some additional reporting that’s not public that suggests that we think the path is still clear to being successful. But look, we’ll have to work. We’ll have to work to implement, to monitor, to make sure that it actually happens.”

The agreement — which was reached over four hours of negotiating at the Turkish presidential palace with Vice President Mike Pence — calls for a pause of violence for 120 hours to allow the Kurds to leave northeast Syria. In exchange, the United States dropped plans for new sanctions on Turkey and said that if the cease-fire is successful, it would remove existing sanctions.

But the agreement has come under sharp criticism in the past 24 hours. Experts have said Erdoğan outmaneuvered President Donald Trump, and made few concessions for a deal that ultimately tilts in the Turks’ favor. Trump and senior administration officials reject that characterization and have said they set out to stop the violence and killing in northeast Syria, and were successful in doing so.

In the interview, Pompeo said the hammer United States used in the talks was a new round of sanctions it was prepared to levy on Turkey. The Turks, he said, then offered what they “were prepared to deliver in exchange for relief from that.”

But the administration has come under blistering criticism from both Republicans and Democrats. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said abandoning the Kurds will be a “bloodstain” on the United States, while Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said Erdoğan “got everything he wanted.”

Pompeo rejected the characterization that the U.S. abandoned its ally, and said, “Even today, we are still engaged with the SDF fighting ISIS in Syria.” The United States, Pompeo said, was not “in a position” to stop the Turkish advance into Syria, and Trump would rather rely on a political, rather than a military, solution.

“The leaders of a sovereign nation, Turkey, decided to cross into another sovereign nation, Syria, and conduct an incursion with thousands of forces,” Pompeo said. “The United States said we were going to take down the violence, we want to save lives, we want to protect the Kurds from the threat from these Turkish forces. And if we’re ultimately able to get the cease-fire implemented, we will have successfully achieved that.”

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