Pence arrives in Turkey to urge halt to Syria offensive

ANKARA • US Vice-President Mike Pence arrived in Turkey yesterday on a mission to persuade Ankara to halt its offensive against Kurdish fighters in north-east Syria, but Turkish officials said the action would continue regardless.

The week-long assault has created a new humanitarian crisis in Syria, with 160,000 civilians fleeing. There is also a security alert over thousands of fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group abandoned in Kurdish jails. And US President Donald Trump faces a political maelstrom at home.

Mr Trump has been accused of abandoning the Kurdish fighters, who were Washington's main partners in the battle to dismantle ISIS' self-declared caliphate in Syria, by withdrawing US troops from the border as Turkey launched its offensive on Oct 9.

But Mr Trump has defended his move as "strategically brilliant". He said he thought Mr Pence and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would have a successful meeting, but warned of sanctions and tariffs that "will be devastating to Turkey's economy" otherwise.

The White House has released an Oct 9 letter from Mr Trump to Mr Erdogan that says: "Don't be a tough guy" and "Don't be a fool!"

Turkish broadcaster CNN Turk said Ankara had rejected Mr Trump's appeal to reach a deal to avoid conflict and the letter was "thrown in the trash".

A Turkish official said: "The letter Trump sent did not have the impact he expected in Turkey because it had nothing to take seriously.

"What is clear is that Turkey does not want a terrorist organisation on its border and the operation will not stop because of the reaction that has been coming."

Mr Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were likely to convey the same US demands in their meeting with Mr Erdogan, the official said. "However, negotiating with a terrorist organisation or turning back from the ongoing operation are not on the agenda," he said.

 
 
 

A top aide to Mr Erdogan, Mr Ibrahim Kalin, said Turkey's foreign ministry was preparing to retaliate against the US sanctions.

Mr 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 32km into north-east Syria to ensure the return of millions of Syrian refugees and clear the area of Kurdish fighters Ankara views as terrorists.

Turkey will end its operation when Kurdish forces withdraw from the "safe zone" and "no power" can deter the operation until it reaches its goals, the Turkish leader said.

Mr Trump has defended his move to withdraw troops from Syria as part of a wider effort to bring US soldiers home from "endless wars", despite criticism by members of his own Republican Party.

He said on Wednesday that he did not mind Russia helping Syria in a conflict with Nato ally Turkey.

The Kurds, he said, were "not angels" and that it might be necessary for Russian-backed Syria and Turkey to "fight it out".

"Our soldiers are not in harm's way - as they shouldn't be, as two countries fight over land that has nothing to do with us," he said.

Mr Trump also said he viewed the situation on the Turkish border with Syria to be "strategically brilliant" for the US.

"Syria may have some help with Russia, and that's fine. It's a lot of sand," he later said.

"So you have Syria and you have Turkey. They're going to argue it out, maybe they're going to fight it out. But our men aren't going to get killed over it."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 18, 2019, with the headline 'Pence arrives in Turkey to urge halt to Syria offensive'. Print Edition | Subscribe