In Depth

US delegation to meet Erdogan as Trump faces Syria storm

President’s ‘strategically brilliant’ withdrawal of US troops from Syrian border draws condemnation

A delegation led by US Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is due to hold talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan about the escalating violence in northeastern Syria.

Turkey continues to forge ahead in outright defiance of US and international attempts to curtail his country’s incursion into the region. Yesterday he pressed Kurdish fighters to lay down their weapons and leave the contested Syrian border area “this very night”. 

Speaking in the Turkish Parliament on Wednesday, Erdogan said his forces would not stop fighting until a 20-mile-deep “safe zone” had been established in Syria, stretching from the city of Manbij eastwards to the Iraqi border.

In Manbij, Russian forces have taken over an abandoned US base, hastily evacuated after US President Donald Trump’s decision last week to remove US forces from northern Syria following a phone call with Erdogan. Around 1,000 troops were a linchpin of stability in the region, ensuring neither the governments of Turkey or Syria dared encroach, and forming an area where Kurds who fought alongside the US in the fight against Islamic State (Isis) existed in relative security.

Trump’s decision has left the US’s erstwhile Kurdish friends facing a Turkish onslaught that some analysts consider bent on ethnic cleansing. Desperate, they have turned to former enemy Bashar Al Assad’s Syrian Armed Forces, whom they now fight alongside.

As well as uniting a former comrade with a long-standing foe, the US troop withdrawal has ignited fears over the fate of 3.6 million Syrian refugees currently in Turkey. Re-homing them is one of Ankara’s two purported objectives for Operation Peace Spring - the other being to shatter the Kurdish presence on their border - but last week Erdogan threatened to “open the gates” for the refugees to migrate to Europe.

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Washington furor

The US troop withdrawal has caused cross-party uproar in Washington and in the US armed forces. “It will go down in infamy,” a US Army officer who served in the Syria campaign told The Washington Post. “This will go down as a stain on the American reputation for decades.”

At a White House press conference yesterday evening, Trump attempted to distance his administration from the situation, describing his withdrawal as “strategically brilliant”.

“The Kurds are much safer right now,” he claimed, referencing their new allegiance with the Syrian Armed Forces. “The Kurds know how to fight, and, as I said, they’re not angels.”

The Middle East “has nothing to do with us”, he said. “There’s a lot of sand they can play with. It’s possibly never going to be very stable.”

Soon after the president spoke, a bipartisan majority in the House of Representatives passed a symbolic measure condemning the decision to withdraw troops from the region. After the vote, Trump held a meeting with senior lawmakers - his first with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi since she launched impeachment proceedings over the Ukraine scandal.

By all reports, it didn’t go well.

Mike Pence leads a delegation

Ankara seems unbowed, even in the face of sanctions imposed this week by the US and EU. Upon hearing the news that the US vice president and secretary of state were arriving in Ankara for talks, Erdogan continued his bullish stance, telling a Sky News reporter: “I am standing tall. I will not meet with them. They will meet with their counterparts. I will speak when Trump comes.”

However, this prompted a hasty backpedalling, as his communications director, Fahrettin Altun, confirmed on Twitter:

“We need them to stand down,” Pompeo said. “We need a ceasefire at which point we can begin to put this all back together again.”

However, former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is skeptical. “To have the vice president and the secretary of state going to meet with Erdogan and suggesting that somehow we’re surprised by what’s happening is disingenuous,” he said. “Very clearly it was a decision by the administration which has led to what you’re seeing. This is a bit like the farmer locking the barn door after the horses left.”

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