Pence heads to Turkey as Erdogan rejects calls for ceasefire in Syria

US Vice President Mike Pence is heading to Ankara on Wednesday in a bid to negotiate a cease-fire deal in northeastern Syria, despite Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan rejecting any truce in the region. 

“They say ‘declare a ceasefire.’ We will never declare a ceasefire,” Erdogan told reporters while returning from a trip to Azerbaijan late on Tuesday. “They are pressuring us to stop the operation. They are announcing sanctions. Our goal is clear. We are not worried about any sanctions.”

The Turkish leader also ruled out talks with Kurdish forces in Syria, saying on Wednesday: “There are some leaders who are trying to mediate… There has never been any such thing in the history of the Turkish republic as the state sitting at the same table with a terror organisation.”

Threat of sanctions

US officials have threatened to impose tougher sanctions on Turkey if Ankara refuses to halt its offensive. Washington’s most effective form of economic leverage would be to hinder Turkey’s access to US financial markets, a step the US administration has so far avoided.

The White House in a statement said: “Vice President Pence will reiterate President Trump’s commitment to maintain punishing economic sanctions on Turkey until a resolution is reached.”

The vice president is expected to be accompanied by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien

Creating a ‘safe zone’

The UN Security Council will likely meet on Wednesday to discuss the latest developments in Syria, diplomats said, the second such session since Turkey began its offensive.

Turkey launched its long-threatened military operation in northeastern Syria last week targeting a US-backed, Kurdish-led militia alliance, after a US decision to withdraw from the border. Critics have accused President Donald Trump of abandoning the country’s Syrian Kurdish partners that helped battle the so-called Islamic State. 

The US announced on Sunday it was withdrawing its entire force of 1,000 troops from northern Syria.

Ankara sees the Kurdish YPG militia, a key component of the forces that fought IS, as a terrorist group aligned with Kurdish separatist insurgents in Turkey.

Turkey says it aims to defeat the YPG and create a “safe zone” where millions of Syrian war refugees now in Turkey could be resettled.

New alliances

Following the US withdrawal, Washington’s former Kurdish allies forged a new alliance with the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, inviting the army into towns across their territory.

The Syrian army deployments into Kurdish-held territory amount to a victory for Assad and Russia, giving them a foothold in the biggest remaining swathe of Syria that had been beyond their grasp through much of its 8-year-old war.

Trump has defended his actions as part of a plan to extricate the US from “endless” wars in the Middle East. But he faces intense criticism — both both abroad and domestic — over his actions in Syria. On Wednesday, the president is meeting the Republican and Democratic leaders of the US Senate and House of Representatives, as well as the congressional foreign affairs and armed services committees to discuss the situation in Middle Eastern nation.

Russia said on Wednesday it will encourage Syria’s government and Kurdish forces to reach agreements and implement them following the Turkish operation, the RIA news agency cited Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying.

Speaking in Russia’s Black Sea city of Sochi, Lavrov said the Turkish operation had allowed captured Islamic State fighters to escape. He added that Moscow would support security cooperation between Turkish and Syrian forces along their border.

Europe worried

European governments, meanwhile, are worried the chaos could trigger mass breakouts by thousands of IS fighters detained by Kurdish forces.

They have warned this could lead to an IS resurgence and increase the risk of some jihadists returning to Europe and carrying out attacks.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian on Wednesday told BFM TV that he would soon go to Iraq to discuss a judicial framework to enable jihadists being held in Syria to face trial.

Le Drian also noted that nine French women had escaped from a Kurdish-controlled camp after the start of the Turkish military operation.

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