ANKARA, Turkey (AFP) — Vice President Mike Pence arrived in Turkey on Thursday to push President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for a ceasefire in Syria, but Erdogan said Wednesday that Turkey’s invasion — facilitated by the withdrawal of U.S. troops from northern Syria — would continue.
That came as an extraordinary letter from Trump emerged in which he warned Erdogan: “Don’t be a fool.”
Sent the day Turkey launched its incursion into northeastern Syria, Trump said history risked branding Erdogan a “devil.”
Pence is accompanied by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other officials.
Days after U.S. troops abruptly began withdrawing, Turkish soldiers and their Syrian rebel proxies gained ground in Ras al-Ain, a key border town where Kurdish fighters had been putting up stiff resistance, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Turkish forces and the mostly Arab and Turkmen former rebels they use as a ground force had “taken about half of the town” by Thursday morning, Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based war monitor, said.
The Observatory said more than 300,000 civilians were displaced in Syria since the start of the assault, and labeled it one of the largest upheavals since Syria’s civil war began in 2011.
The monitor said nearly 500 people have been killed, including dozens of civilians, mostly on the Kurdish side.
On Wednesday, Kurdish forces struck a desperate deal with Damascus and stepped aside to allow Syrian troops and allied Russian soldiers enter the border town of Kobane, according to the Observatory.
Kobane is a highly symbolic town for Syria’s Kurds, whose forces in 2015 wrested it from the Islamic State group in an epic battle backed by the U.S.-led coalition.
The Turkish operation, now in its second week, has triggered a flurry of diplomacy among major powers.
Facing a barrage of criticism in Washington for abandoning the Kurds, Trump has imposed sanctions on three Turkish ministers and raised tariffs on its steel industry — steps that he characterized as tough, but many analysts described as “minimal.”
Pence’s office said the United States would pursue “punishing economic sanctions” unless there was “an immediate ceasefire”.
In the Oct. 9 letter to Erdogan, whose authenticity was confirmed by the White House, Trump wrote: “You don’t want to be responsible for slaughtering thousands of people, and I don’t want to be responsible for destroying the Turkish economy — and I will.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov pointed out the “unusual” nature of the letter, saying it was “not often that such language is found in exchanges between leaders.”
But Erdogan told the Turkish parliament that the only way to solve Syria’s problems was for the Kurdish forces to “lay down their arms … destroy all their traps and get out of the safe zone that we have designated.”
Trump again dismissed the idea that pulling out 1,000 troops — practically the entire U.S. contingent in the region — was a betrayal of Kurdish allies who bore the brunt of the fight against ISIS in recent years.
Ankara says Syria’s main Kurdish force, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), is a “terrorist” offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a bloody insurgency inside Turkey since 1984.
Moscow has stepped into the void left by the U.S. withdrawal, deploying patrols to prevent clashes between Syrian and Turkish forces.
The Kremlin and the Turkish presidency said Erdogan would meet Vladimir Putin next week, as both sides seek to prevent a war between Turkey and Syria.
The Turkish government can count on widespread support for its operation at home, where a decades-long insurgency by Kurdish militants has killed tens of thousands of people.
But Western powers fear it will endanger the fight against ISIS. Thousands of ISIS prisoners are held in Kurdish-run camps in the region.
Europe has taken an increasingly tough line with Turkey, and several countries, including Britain, France and Germany, have imposed arms embargoes on Ankara over the operation.
The U.N. Security Council warned in a unanimously adopted statement of a risk of “dispersion” of jihadist prisoners, but stopped short of calling for an end to Turkey’s offensive.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said Wednesday they were “freezing” operations against ISIS.
The force’s head Mazloum Abdi told Kurdish television channel Ronahi it would make do with “defensive” operations against the group, which maintains sleeper cells and a presence in Syria’s vast desert despite its territorial defeat.
Since launching the assault on Oct. 9, Turkey and its Syrian proxies have secured more than 60 miles of the border, but Ras al-Ain has held out.
Erdogan wants to create a buffer zone stretching 20 miles from the border into Syrian territory.
He wants to destroy Kurdish hopes of an autonomous enclave that Turkey fears could serve as a launchpad for attacks on its soil, and to resettle some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees Ankara is hosting.
© Agence France-Presse