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Trump lifts sanctions on Turkey, calls Syrian border ceasefire ‘big success’

Tom Brenner, Reuters | U.S. President Donald Trump delivers a statement on the conflict in Syria as Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stand by in the Diplomatic Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., October 23, 2019.

US President Donald Trump announced on Wednesday the United States would be lifting sanctions on Turkey, hailing the success of a ceasefire along its border with Syria, which he says is now permanent. 

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"Earlier this morning, the government of Turkey informed my administration that they would be stopping combat and their offensive in Syria and making the ceasefire permanent," Trump said in a televised address from the White House.

"I have, therefore, instructed the Secretary of the Treasury to lift all sanctions imposed October 14th in response to Turkey's original offensive moves against the Kurds in Syria's northeast border region," he added, describing the truce as a “major breakthrough”.

His announcement came after a deal struck by Russia and Turkey in Sochi on Tuesday, under which Russia agreed to "facilitate the removal" from the border region of Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) fighters, Washington's main allies in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) group.

The agreement will also see Turkey preserve a "safe zone" inside Syria about 75 miles long and 20 miles deep. Russia and Turkey will eventually launch joint patrols in the area.

"Countless lives are now being saved as a result of our negotiation with Turkey, an outcome reached without spilling one drop of American blood: no injuries, nobody shot, nobody killed," Trump said, claiming credit for the truce.

The US will "let someone else fight over this long, bloodstained sand," he said, though adding that a “small number” of US troops would remain to guard Syria's oil fields.

Trump warned that "crippling sanctions" could be reimposed if Turkey fails to honour its obligation to protect religious and ethnic minorities in northeastern Syria’s Kurdish heartland.

No strategy ‘to fix the mess he’s created’

Trump's claims of success did not blunt attacks from US lawmakers over his abrupt decision early this month to withdraw US troops out of northeastern Syria, clearing the way for a Turkish invasion and a Russian deployment in the region.

Congress is still working on a sanctions package of its own intended to punish Turkey for its cross-border offensive, with many of Trump’s Republican allies openly criticising his decision to abandon the Kurds.

Controversy surrounding Trump's Syria pull-out has contributed to a climate of political chaos in Washington, where Democrats are seeking to remove the president from office through impeachment over his attempts to get Ukraine to investigate Democratic rival Joe Biden.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer took to the Senate floor to excoriate Trump over Syria.

"Three weeks after first announcing the troop withdrawal, the president does not seem to have a clear strategy for securing the enduring defeat of ISIS and fixing the mess he’s created in Syria," he said, using another acronym to refer to the IS group.

IS group prisoners escape

More than 100 IS group prisoners have escaped as a result of the chaos caused by Turkey's incursion, a senior US official said Wednesday.

"We would say the number is now over 100. We do not know where they are," James Jeffrey, the State Department pointman on Syria, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee when asked about the detainees.

Jeffrey said the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces were still guarding prisoners from the extremist group, despite their warnings that they would need to devote resources to fend off Turkey’s aggression instead.

"Almost all of the prisons that the SDF were guarding are still secured. The SDF still has people there," Jeffrey said.

Despite the US withdrawal, the SDF commander Mazloum Kobani said on Wednesday Trump had promised to maintain long-term support for the Kurdish-led forces in the region.

Kobani, who said he had a phone call with Trump, added in a tweet that Trump pledged he would extend support in "various fields."

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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