When Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shook hands on the tarmac at Joint Base Andrews Wednesday before boarding separate planes, the view inside the White House was grim.
President Donald Trump’s top two aides were bound for Turkey to broker a ceasefire that, just hours earlier, Trump said wasn’t America’s responsibility. The White House had been fielding angry calls from Republican lawmakers and evangelicals for days over his decision to abruptly withdraw American troops from northeastern Syria, accusing Trump of abandoning an ally.
Multiple administration officials privately said they had low expectations for the meeting’s outcome, and two remarked they weren’t sure why an American delegation was being sent to the Turkish capital in the first place.
So when the vice president emerged after nine hours of meetings and negotiations to announce a ceasefire Thursday, there was some skepticism.
“Today, we have agreed to a cease-fire in Syria,” Pence said during a late night news conference at the US ambassador’s residence as Pompeo stood over his right shoulder.
The vice president declared there would be a five-day pause in military operations while the US facilitated the withdrawal of the Kurdish-led YPG militia from affected areas in the the “safe zone” controlled by Turkish forces. Pence said he had been sent to “stop the violence,” and he had achieved his goal.
But as the details of the agreement emerged, new questions were raised about just how victorious the US had been in the negotiations. Shortly after he spoke, the Turkish foreign minister said the two delegations had not agreed to a ceasefire, but a pause. A senior administration official later dismissed the contradiction as semantics, claiming that just because the Turks were uncomfortable with the term ceasefire didn’t meant they hadn’t agreed to cease firing.
Others disagreed that Turkey had made any real commitments.
“This is essentially the US validating what Turkey did and allowing them to annex a portion of Syria and displace the Kurdish population,” a senior US official familiar with operations in Syria told CNN. “This is what Turkey wanted and what POTUS green lighted. I do think one reason Turkey agreed to it is because of the Kurds have put up more of resistance and they could not advance south any further as a result. If we don’t impose sanctions, then Turkey wins big time.”
Shortly after Pence’s news conference, aides passed out a picture of a sheet titled, ‘JOINT TURKISH-US STATEMENT ON NORTHEAST SYRIA.”
The document did not use the term “ceasefire,” despite what the official said, and mostly detailed Turkish desires.
Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, had flown to Ankara the day before with the US envoy to Syria by his side. The two spent hours drafting the agreement with their Turkish counterparts, and later joined a four-way telephone conversation with Pence and Pompeo the next morning to review it. The terms were finalized Thursday.
But additional sanctions had been on the table. In recent days, Trump had vowed to ruin Turkey’s economy if they took any wrong steps, and in a letter he self-described as “nasty,” Trump warned Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, “Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!”
The letter the President touted was never brought up during the nine hours of negotiations, a senior administration official said. In return for the temporary ceasefire, Pence said Trump agreed not to impose any further sanctions on Turkey. He also agreed, once the permanent cease-fire took place, to withdraw the sanctions that had been imposed on Turkey last week.
How long the ceasefire would last was another critical part of the negotiations, according to a senior administration official. Pence and Erdoğan spent a substantial amount of time negotiating how many days it would last. In the end, 120 hours was decided on – which the US side saw as realistic time to allow Kurdish fighters to leave the area and avoid an onslaught.
US officials had been in touch with members of the YPG throughout the negotiations Thursday, asking about logistics, like where the YPG could pull out of and demanding they stop long-range artillery fire into Turkey.
The first meeting between Pence and Erdoğan on the sweeping, presidential grounds was only supposed to last 10 minutes. Pence had been in a solemn mood leading up to the meeting, with one aide saying, “He understands the gravity of the moment.”
Each side was joined by an interpreter, but instead of bringing any of the multiple translators who had traveled the 7,000 miles to Turkey, Pence instead had US special envoy to Syria Jim Jeffrey in the room. Jeffrey, the blunt-speaking former ambassador to Turkey, often stands out because of his tall stature. An official said Pence selected him instead of a translator because Erdoğan had brought his national security adviser who is fluent in English.
The meeting stretched from a scheduled 10 minutes to 80 as Pence tried to get the Turkish officials to agree to a ceasefire. The vice president, according to a senior administration official, saw a decisive moment in the talks when, at one point in the conversation, Erdoğan asked how long it would take to move the YPG. To Pence, it signaled an openness to a ceasefire.
There had not been an openness to the press. Initially, reporters traveling with Pence and Pompeo had been relegated to vans outside the gates of the presidential compound. Then they were moved into a green carpeted ballroom inside the palace, where they drank coffee and sipped tea while the two delegations met for hours.
Then, in a mad rush, reporters were whisked upstairs by an elevator, where they were tracked down a marble hallway and into a large room where Pence, Erdoğan and the rest of the two delegations sat seated around a wooden table. Neither leader answered shouted questions during the 30 seconds reporters were in the room.
Behind closed doors again, there was one moment during the second meeting with both delegations where Pence stopped mid-conversation. A Turkish official had just cited the number of their citizens who had been killed in action. In what was described as a moment of empathy, Pence asked the aide to stop, and pointed out that there were veterans on the US side of the table as well. He also noted that his son, Michael Pence, serves in the armed forces before expressing his condolences to the Turks for the fallen and their families.
It’s unclear if the number of Kurdish fatalities were brought up by either side.
Some of the loudest critics of Trump’s decision to remove US troops from northern Syria have been his closest allies. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina accused the President of taking a grave national security risk and said he would have blood on his hands if ISIS reemerged – criticisms Trump later brushed off as he told his golfing partner to “focus on judiciary.”
After Pence emerged from his day of meetings to declare a ceasefire, Graham briefly expressed hope but said he still was unaware of the details. Graham said he expected to continue to find co-sponsors for the Turkey sanctions bill he had introduced earlier in the day in hopes of keeping the pressure on the Turks until a final agreement was signed. He said Trump invited him to plan a round of golf.
Other Republicans who have been quicker to criticize Trump weren’t so confident in the agreement.
“I hope the agreement is honored, but at the heart of this matter is a central question of why these terms and assurances were not negotiated before the President consented to withdraw our troops,” Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, said.
During the flight back to Washington, Pence phoned several Republican and Democratic lawmakers to assure them on the status of the talks. An official said he’d likely speak with the chairmen of the relevant congressional committees.
CNN’s Ryan Browne contributed to this report.
This story has been updated.