WASHINGTON (AFP) — US President Donald Trump on Monday urged his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan to “stop the invasion” of Syria, Vice President Mike Pence said.
Trump pressed the Turkish leader in a telephone call to “stop the invasion, to enact an immediate ceasefire and to begin negotiations with Kurdish forces in Syria,” Pence told reporters, adding that he would be traveling urgently to Turkey at the president’s request.
“He’s directed me to lead a delegation. I will be leaving as quickly as possible to travel into the region to pursue a ceasefire and negotiated settlement,” Pence said.
Pence said the president is “very concerned about instability in the region” and denied that Trump gave Turkey the green light to launch the invasion when he announced a troop pullout.
Pence said the US is “simply not going to tolerate Turkey’s invasion of Syria any longer.”
The United States slapped sanctions on Turkey on Monday as it demanded an end to its deadly incursion against Syrian Kurdish fighters, accusing its NATO partner of putting civilians at risk and allowing the release of Islamic State extremists.
The actions came hours after regime troops returned for the first time in years to parts of northeastern Syria, invited by Kurdish fighters desperate for protection as the United States pulls out.
Trump took extraordinary measures against a country that is officially a US ally as he faces mounting criticism at home, where even usually supportive lawmakers accuse him of abandoning Kurds who had spearheaded the fight against the Islamic State group.
“I am fully prepared to swiftly destroy Turkey’s economy if Turkish leaders continue down this dangerous and destructive path,” Trump, who until recently had touted his friendship with Erdogan, said in a statement.
The Treasury Department said it was imposing sanctions on Turkey’s defense, interior and energy ministers, freezing their US assets and making US transactions with them a crime.
Trump said he was also ending talks on a US-Turkey trade deal he valued at $100 billion and, in perhaps the most biting reprisal, reimposing tariffs of 50 percent of Turkish steel.
The United States had slapped the 50 percent sanctions on Turkey last year to win the release of an evangelical pastor whose detention had stirred up Trump’s base.
Signaling an escalating rift in relations, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he would head next week to Brussels to ask NATO allies to punish Turkey over the incursion
NATO has long been seen as keeping Turkey in the Western orbit, but Erdogan angered the United States earlier this year by buying the major S-400 missile defense system from Russia.
Erdogan has vowed to crush the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which Erdogan links to separatists inside Turkey.
Turkey wants to create a roughly 30-kilometer (20-mile) buffer zone along its border to keep Kurdish forces at bay and also to send back some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees on its soil.
The chaos in areas targeted in the six-day-old Turkish assault has already led to the escape of around 800 foreign women and children linked to IS from a Kurdish-run camp, according to Kurdish authorities.
The Kurds had repeatedly warned of that exact scenario when Western countries refused to repatriate their IS-linked nationals and when Trump made it clear he wanted to end the US military presence.
Esper, the US defense chief, said Turkey’s incursion had “resulted in the release of many dangerous ISIS detainees,” although Erdogan accused Kurdish forces of deliberately freeing jihadists to “fuel chaos.”
Trump also mused that the Kurds may be releasing prisoners to keep the United States engaged and, despite his actions Monday, staunchly defended withdrawing troops.
“Anyone who wants to assist Syria in protecting the Kurds is good with me, whether it is Russia, China, or Napoleon Bonaparte. I hope they all do great, we are 7,000 miles away!” Trump wrote on Twitter moments before the statement.
The United States said it is withdrawing all 1,000 troops from northeastern Syria, keeping in the country only its roughly 150 troops in the southern base of Al Tanf near the borders with Jordan and Iraq.
AP contributed to this report