ANKARA (Reuters) – U.S. Vice President Mike Pence will urge Turkey on Thursday to halt its offensive against Kurdish fighters in northeast Syria, a day after President Donald Trump threatened heavy sanctions over the operation.
Turkey’s week-long assault has created a new humanitarian crisis in Syria with 160,000 civilians taking flight, a security alert over thousands of Islamic State fighters abandoned in Kurdish jails, and a political maelstrom at home for Trump.
Trump has been accused of abandoning Kurdish fighters, who were Washington’s main partners in the battle to dismantle Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate in Syria, by withdrawing troops from the border as Turkey launched its offensive on Oct. 9.
Trump defended his move on Wednesday and called it “strategically brilliant”.
Following a phone call with Erdogan, who has rejected calls for ceasefire or mediation, Trump dispatched top aides including Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Ankara for emergency talks to try to persuade Turkey to halt the offensive.
Pence will meet Erdogan around 1130 GMT, while Pompeo and other officials are expected to hold talks with counterparts. A top aide to Erdogan, Ibrahim Kalin, met National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien on Wednesday and said he conveyed Turkey’s position.
On Wednesday, Trump said he thought Pence and Erdogan would have a “successful meeting”, but warned of sanctions and tariffs that “will be devastating to Turkey’s economy” otherwise. Kalin said that Turkey’s foreign ministry was preparing to retaliate to the U.S. sanctions.
Trump’s critics say the U.S. sanctions so far, including a hike to steel tariffs, a pause in trade talks, and sanctions on the defense and energy ministries, were too soft.
On Wednesday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said they could be broadened, while Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives also indicated a sanctions legislation.
Erdogan has dismissed the sanctions and rejected a global chorus of calls to halt the offensive, which Turkey says will create a “safe zone” extending 20 miles (32 km) into northeast Syria to ensure the return of millions of Syrian refugees and clear the area of Kurdish fighters Ankara views as terrorists.
Erdogan said Turkey would end its operation when Kurdish forces withdraw from the “safe zone”, adding that “no power” can deter Ankara’s operation until it reaches its goals.
Trump has defended his move to withdraw troops from Syria as part of a wider effort to bring U.S. soldiers home from “endless wars”, despite being excoriated by members of his own Republican Party. Trump’s decision to withhold protection from Syrian Kurds upended five years of U.S. policy.
It has also created a land-rush between Turkey and Russia – now the undisputed foreign powers in the area – to partition the Kurdish areas that were formerly under U.S protection.
Turkey’s operation has also allowed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to redeploy his forces to an area that had been beyond his control for years in the more than eight-year Syrian war. It also prompted the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), of which the Kurdish YPG is the main element, to strike a deal with Damascus.
SDF Commander Mazloum Kobani said on Wednesday Trump did not object to the deal cut between the Kurdish forces and Damascus.
Turkey views the U.S.-backed YPG as a terrorist organization because of its link to Kurdish militants waging an insurgency inside Turkey, and has been infuriated with Washington’s support.
Russia, Assad’s most powerful ally, has called the offensive “unacceptable” and said it must be limited in time and scale. In a rare criticism of Turkish policy on Syria, Moscow said Turkish troops had the right to temporarily go up to a maximum of 10 km into Syria, under a 1998 agreement between Damascus and Ankara.
A Reuters cameraman along the Turkish border with Syria said clashes continued around the border town of Ras al Ain and that Turkish war planes were heard flying overhead after a lull in fighting overnight.
Ankara had previously said it has taken control of Ras al Ain and Tel Abyad, two key towns along the border.
Syrian troops, accompanied by Russian forces, have meanwhile entered Kobani, a strategic border city and a potential flashpoint for a wider conflict, said the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war.
Lebanon’s al-Mayadeen TV reported that Russian-backed Syrian forces had also set up outposts in Raqqa, the one-time capital of Islamic State’s caliphate, which the Kurds captured in 2017 at the peak of their campaign with U.S. support.
The White House, fighting the domestic political damage and perhaps trying to demonstrate the president’s efforts to stop the offensive, released a Trump letter to Erdogan from Oct. 9 that said: “Don’t be a tough guy” and “Don’t be a fool!”
Turkish broadcaster CNN Turk, quoting sources, said Turkey had rejected Trump’s appeal to reach a deal to avoid conflict, saying the letter was “thrown in the trash”.
Erdogan, who has forged close ties with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin through defense and energy cooperation, as well as joint efforts for a political solution to the Syrian crisis, will travel to Sochi on Oct. 22 for emergency talks on Syria.
Editing by Dominic Evans and Angus MacSwan