by Steve Herman
WHITE HOUSE – Turkish officials say President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will meet with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo when they travel to Turkey to press for a halt to Ankara’s invasion of northeast Syria.
Erdogan had earlier told Sky News Pence and Pompeo would be meeting their Turkish counterparts this week. The Turkish leader added that when President Donald Trump comes to Turkey he would meet with him. His comments appeared to indicate he wouldn’t talk to Pence and Pompeo but Turkey’s communication director said Erdogan would in fact meet with both officials.
President Trump is seeking a cease-fire in northeast Syria. “We’ve put the strongest sanctions that you can imagine (on Turkey). We have a lot in store if they don’t have an impact, including massive tariffs on steel.”
Turkey launched its military operation last week to take out Syrian Kurdish forces branded by Ankara as terrorists, but viewed by much of the West as key partners in the fight against Islamic State. It came days after the White House announced Turkey was moving forward with the operation and that U.S. troops would be withdrawn from the area. The decision to withdraw U.S. troops has been widely criticized by both Democratic and Republican lawmakers.
During his visit to Turkey, Pence will voice the U.S. commitment “to reach an immediate cease-fire and the conditions for a negotiated settlement,” according to a White House statement.
“Goal number one is to carry out diplomacy to try to find a cease-fire. Get the situation under control. It’s very, very confusing. It’s dangerous for our troops. It’s placing the fight against ISIS [Islamic State] at risk. It’s placing at risk the safe imprisonment of almost 10,000 detainees,” a State Department official said earlier Tuesday.
The official noted there has not been “any major successful breakout so far of detainees,” referring to imprisoned IS fighters and their families. Syrian Kurdish officials have said hundreds of suspected IS prisoners have escaped.
Officials in Washington say American military aircraft have conducted a “show of force” in Syria after Turkish-backed fighters came too close to American forces during the Turkish offensive into northeastern Syria against the U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces.
As Turkish-backed militias advanced towards the Lafarge Cement Factory, the SDF set fire to, and then vacated its facilities and equipment, a U.S. official said.
“No U.S. forces or equipment were ever in jeopardy and remain within separate, secure facilities. Our priority is protecting the remaining Coalition forces at the LCF as multiple forces converge in northeast Syria,” said U.S. Army Col. Myles B. Caggins, a spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve.
Before Thursday’s talks in Ankara, the diplomatic effort will proceed Wednesday in New York and in Brussels with both the U.N. Security Council and NATO ambassadors set to discuss the situation in Syria.
Securing nuclear weapons
Democratic Senator Edward Markey is asking Trump to “immediately” remove U.S. nuclear weapons stored in Turkey.
Markey says about 50 weapons are at the Incirlik Air base, about 400 kilometers from the Syrian border.
“While Russia’s nuclear threat continues, our nuclear weapons deployment must reflect today’s evolving security environment,” Markey said in a statement.
Erdogan cut power to Incirlik and prevented U.S. aircraft from flying in or out of the base during the failed 2016 uprising against the Turkish government.
Trump has faced harsh criticism in the week since the White House announced Turkey was going forward with its long-held plans to try to carve out a buffer zone along its border with Syria free from the U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters. The U.S. military has long said its Kurdish allies have been instrumental in the fight against IS, and the elimination of IS’s caliphate.
Turkey’s incursion pushed the U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces to reach an agreement with the Syrian government that has brought Syrian troops back into the northeastern part of the country for the first time in years, including on Monday when they reached the town of Manbij.
A U.S. military spokesman said on Tuesday American troops left the town of Manbij as part of their withdrawal from the area.
In addition to the call to halt the military operation, the United States raised steel tariffs and halted negotiations on a $100-billion trade deal with Turkey.
U.S. Democratic and Republican lawmakers have faulted the Trump administration for what is unfolding, saying the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the area cleared the way for the U.S. ally SDF to be put in danger, as well as increasing the potential for Islamic State militants under SDF detention to break free and stage a resurgence.
Congress’ leading Democrats — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer — announced Tuesday a joint bipartisan resolution opposing Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria, calling it a “reckless action, which threatens countless lives.”
Trump spoke Monday with both Erdogan and General Mazloum Kobani, the head of the mostly Kurdish SDF that the United States has relied on to battle the Islamic State militants in Syria.
Erdogan on Tuesday said he told Trump the previous day that Turkey would never declare a cease-fire in northern Syria.