Turkey rebuffed international pressure to curb its deadly offensive against Kurdish forces in Syria on Wednesday as US President Donald Trump dispatched his deputy Mike Pence to Ankara to demand a ceasefire.
But President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed that Turkey’s operation – which has been facilitated by the withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria – would continue.
On another front, Kurdish forces struck a desperate deal with Damascus and stepped aside to allow Syrian regime troops and allied Russian soldiers to enter the border town of Kobane on Wednesday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Kobane is a highly symbolic town for Syria’s Kurds, whose forces had in 2015 wrested the town from ISIS control in an epic battle backed by the US-led coalition.
Days after US troops abruptly began withdrawing, clashes continued across the region on Thursday, with Kurdish fighters in the border town of Ras al-Ain burning tires in a bid to blind Ankara’s warplanes and digging in against a ground offensive by Turkish-backed Syrian rebels.
The Turkish operation, now in its second week, has triggered a flurry of diplomacy among major powers.
Trump sent Pence along with his top diplomat Mike Pompeo to Turkey amid the greatest crisis in relations for decades between the NATO allies, with talks due in Ankara early Thursday.
Facing a barrage of criticism in Washington for abandoning the Kurds, Trump has slapped sanctions on three Turkish ministers and raised tariffs on its steel industry.
Pence’s office said the US would pursue “punishing economic sanctions” unless there was “an immediate ceasefire.”
“Don’t be a fool,” Trump warned Erdogan in an extraordinary letter sent the day Turkey launched its incursion into northeastern Syria – warning history risked branding him a “devil.”
In language shorn of diplomatic niceties, Trump began the letter, dated October 9, with an outright threat.
“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.” he wrote in the missive, whose authenticity was confirmed to AFP by the White House.
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 says Kurds ‘protected’
Trump again dismissed the idea that pulling out 1,000 troops — practically the entire US contingent in the region — had been a betrayal of Kurdish militants who bore the brunt of the fight against IS in recent years.
“The Kurds are very well protected,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “By the way, they are not angels.”
Trump also said he believed the Kurdish PKK is “more dangerous of a terrorist threat” than ISIS, echoing Erdogan’s rhetoric.
Ankara says Syria’s main Kurdish force, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), are 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 US withdrawal, deploying patrols to prevent clashes between Syrian and Turkish forces.
The Kremlin and the Turkish presidency said Erdogan would meet his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in the coming days, 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 bloody insurgency by Kurdish militants has killed tens of thousands of people.
But Western powers fear it will endanger the battle 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 Turkey over the operation.
The UN 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 it was “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 their assault on October 9, Turkey and its Syrian rebel proxies have secured more than 100 kilometers of border but Ras al-Ain has held out.
Erdogan wants to create a buffer zone stretching 30 kilometers from the border into Syrian territory.
He wants to destroy Kurdish hopes of an autonomous enclave that could serve as a launchpad for attacks in Turkey, and to resettle some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees Ankara is hosting.
The offensive has left dozens of civilians dead, mostly on the Kurdish side, and displaced at least 160,000 people.
Hundreds of Syrian Kurds entered neighboring Iraqi’s Kurdish autonomous region Wednesday, mostly women and children.