Pence holds frosty meeting with Erdogan in bid for Syria border ceasefire
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Pence holds frosty meeting with Erdogan in bid for Syria border ceasefire

US vice president shares tense handshake with Turkish leader before urging him to halt offensive against Kurdish forces in northern Syria

US Vice President Mike Pence, left, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the presidential palace, in Ankara, Turkey, on October 17, 2019 (Presidential Press Service via AP, Pool )
US Vice President Mike Pence, left, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the presidential palace, in Ankara, Turkey, on October 17, 2019 (Presidential Press Service via AP, Pool )

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — A senior US delegation led by Vice President Mike Pence pursued an uphill mission Thursday to persuade Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to call for a ceasefire in his fight with Kurdish forces in northern Syria.

Armored SUVs carrying Pence, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien entered the vast Turkish presidency complex in Ankara. Photos released by the Turkish government showed Pence and Erdogan wearing dour expressions as they shook hands before their one-on-one meeting.

That meeting lasted a little less than an hour and a half. A second meeting with the full delegations was still ahead.

The US officials were expected to warn Erdogan that he will face additional economic sanctions if he doesn’t halt his assault on Kurdish forces once allied with the US in the fight against the Islamic State group.

US President Donald Trump earlier spoke dismissively of the same crisis he sent his aides on an emergency mission to douse. The US delegation’s visit came hours after Trump declared the US had no stake in defending Kurdish fighters who died by the thousands as America’s partners against Islamic State extremists.

This picture taken on October 16, 2019 from the Turkish side of the border at Ceylanpinar district in Sanliurfa shows smoke rising from the Syrian town of Ras al-Ain on the eighth day of Turkey’s military operation against Kurdish forces. (Ozan KOSE / AFP)

Trump suggested Wednesday that Kurdish fighters might be a greater terror threat than the Islamic State group, and he welcomed the efforts of Russia and the Assad government to fill the void left after he ordered the removal of nearly all US troops from Syria amid a Turkish assault on the Kurds.

“Syria may have some help with Russia, and that’s fine,” Trump said. “They’ve got a lot of sand over there. So, there’s a lot of sand that they can play with.”

He added: “Let them fight their own wars.”

The split-screen foreign policy moment proved difficult to reconcile and came during perhaps the darkest moment for the modern US-Turkey relationship and a time of trial for Trump and his Republican Party allies. Severe condemnation of Trump’s failure to deter Erdogan’s assault on the Kurds, and his subsequent embrace of Turkish talking points about the former US allies, sparked bipartisan outrage in the US and calls for swift punishment for the NATO ally.

Republicans and Democrats in the House, bitterly divided over the Trump impeachment inquiry, banded together Wednesday for an overwhelming 354-60 denunciation of the US troop withdrawal. Many lawmakers expressed worry that the withdrawal may lead to revival of the Islamic State group as well as Russian presence and influence in the area, besides the slaughter of many Kurds.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Republican-Kentucky) publicly broke with Trump to call the US relationship with the Kurds “a great alliance.”

“I’m sorry that we are where we are. I hope the vice president and the secretary of state can somehow repair the damage,” McConnell said Wednesday.

Syrian families fleeing the battle zone between Turkey-led forces and Kurdish fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in and around the northern flashpoint town of Ras al-Ain on the border with Turkey, October 15, 2019. (Delil SOULEIMAN/AFP)

Even among top administration officials, there were concerns that the trip lacked achievable goals and had been undermined by Trump before it began. While Erdogan faces global condemnation for the invasion, he also sees renewed nationalistic fervor at home, and any pathway to de-escalation likely would need to delicately avoid embarrassing Erdogan domestically. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal thinking.

The White House disclosed that Trump had both cajoled and threatened Erdogan in an unusual letter last week, urging him to act only in “the right and humane way” in Syria. The letter was sent the day Erdogan launched the major offensive against the Kurds.

Trump started it on a positive note by suggesting the two of them “work out a good deal,” but then talked about crippling economic sanctions and concluded that the world “will look upon you forever as the devil if good things don’t happen. Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!”

Trump did place some sanctions on Turkey for the offensive. But he appeared to undercut his delegation’s negotiating stance, saying the US has no business in the region — and not to worry about the Kurdish fighters.

“If Turkey goes onto Syria, that’s between Turkey and Syria, it’s not between Turkey and the United States,” Trump said during an Oval Office meeting with Italian President Sergio Mattarella.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attends a meeting between President Donald Trump and Italian President Sergio Mattarella (not pictured) in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, on October 16, 2019. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP)

As he sought to persuade Erdogan to agree to a ceasefire, Pence also confronted doubts about American credibility and his own, as an emissary of an inconsistent president.

“Given how erratic President Trump’s decision-making process and style has been, it’s just hard to imagine any country on the receiving end of another interlocutor really being confident that what Pence and Pompeo are delivering reflects Trump’s thinking at the moment or what it will be in the future,” said Jeffrey Prescott, the Obama administration’s senior director for Iran, Iraq, Syria and the Gulf states on the National Security Council. He is also a former deputy national security adviser to former Vice President Joe Biden.

The US withdrawal is the worst decision of Trump’s presidency, said Sen. Lindsey Graham (Republican-South Carolina) who meets often with the president and is one of his strongest and most important supporters in Congress.

“To those who think the Mideast doesn’t matter to America, remember 9/11 — we had that same attitude on 9/10/2001,” Graham said.

In this photo from October 14, 2019, Turkey-backed Syrian opposition fighters fire a heavy machine-gun towards Kurdish fighters, in Syria’s northern region of Manbij. (AP Photo)

Even before Trump’s comments, Erdogan had stated on Wednesday that he would be undeterred by the sanctions. He said the fighting would end only if Kurdish fighters abandoned their weapons and retreated from positions near the Turkish border. If Pence can persuade Turkey to agree to a cease-fire, which few US officials believed was likely, experts warn it will not erase the signal Trump’s action sent to American allies across the globe or the opening already being exploited by Russia in the region.

Turkish troops and Turkish-backed Syrian fighters launched their offensive against Kurdish forces in northern Syria a week ago, two days after Trump suddenly announced he was withdrawing the US from the area.

Ankara has long argued the Kurdish fighters are nothing more than an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which has waged a guerrilla campaign inside Turkey since the 1980s and which Turkey, as well as the US and European Union, designate as a terrorist organization.

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