Thu, 14 Nov 2019

A U.S. delegation led by Vice President Mike Pence is meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to try to secure a cease-fire in Turkey's invasion of northern Syria, now in its ninth day.

Pence and Erdogan on October 17 held one-on-one talks at the Turkish presidency complex in Ankara that lasted nearly 90 minutes, and a second meeting with the full delegations was still ahead, reports said.

The visiting U.S. officials, who also included Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and White House national-security adviser Robert O'Brien, were expected to warn Erdogan his country would face additional sanctions if he doesn't halt his assault.

'Our mission set is to see if we can get a cease-fire, see if we can get this brokered,' Pompeo told reporters on his plane to the Turkish capital.

Turkey launched its offensive saying it wanted to clear the area of Kurdish forces and establish a buffer zone to resettle Syrian refugees.

The move came after U.S. President Donald Trump's abrupt decision announced last week to withdraw forces from northeast Syria where they had been supporting Kurdish fighters battling the Islamic State (IS) group.

Turkey has long argued the Kurdish fighters in Syria are an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a guerrilla campaign inside Turkey since the 1980s and which Ankara, Washington, and the European Union designate as a terrorist organization.

Trump, who has already placed some sanctions on Turkey for the offensive, said he believed Pence and Pompeo will "have a successful meeting" in Turkey.

If the talks fail, "the sanctions, tariffs, other things that we're doing -- will do and are doing -- to Turkey will be devastating to Turkey's economy," he told a news conference alongside Italian President Sergio Mattarella in Washington.

But the U.S. president said that the PKK 'is probably worse at terror and more of a terrorist threat in many ways than' IS.

Trump added that Kurds 'know how to fight and as I said, they aren't angels. They are not angels, if you take a look.'

Trump defended his decision to redeploy about 1,000 U.S. soldiers from northern Syria as 'strategically brilliant' for the United States, while saying he had no problem if Russia helped Syria in a conflict with Turkey.

Separately on October 16, a letter was disclosed in which Trump both cajoled and threatened Erdogan last week, urging him to act only in 'the right and humane way' in Syria.

In the letter, dated October 9 -- the day Turkey launched the invasion -- Trump wrote to his Turkish counterpart: 'Don't be a tough guy. Don't be a fool.'

There was no immediate official reaction to the letter from Ankara, but the BBC quoted unnamed Turkish presidential sources as saying that Erdogan 'received the letter, thoroughly rejected it, and put it in the bin.'

In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said October 17 that he was surprised by the harsh tone employed by Trump in the letter.

'Such language is not often encountered in communication of state leaders. It's a pretty unusual letter,' Peskov said.

Kurdish Syrian civilians flee the town of Kobani on the Turkish border on October 16.

Peskov also said that Russian President Vladimir Putin will discuss humanitarian problems stemming from Turkey's military operation when he meets with his Turkish counterpart next week.

Meanwhile, Turkey's state-run news agency reported that the Kremlin's special envoy for Syria, Aleksandr Lavrentyev, met with a top aide of Erdogan, Ibrahim Kalin, to discuss Turkey's ongoing incursion and the situation in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib.

The two agreed on the need for continued cooperation between Moscow and Ankara to prevent the threat that 'all terror organizations' pose to Syria's territorial integrity, Anadolu Agency reported.

Since the U.S. troop withdrawal, the former U.S.-allied Kurds in northeastern Syria have teamed up with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces and his ally, Russia, which has stepped in as the biggest power player, sending in patrols to the northern part of the country.

Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel again called on Turkey to stop its military offensive in Syria.

Merkel told parliament on October 17 that the offensive strengthened the role of Russia and Iran in the region and that the consequences of that 'cannot be judged today.'

She said the military operation 'makes tens of thousands, among them thousands of children, flee,' calling it 'a humanitarian drama with big geopolitical consequences.'

In Budapest, Prime Minister Viktor Orban warned that Hungary would have to 'use force' at its southern border with Serbia if Turkey delivered on a threat to open the gates for refugees through the Balkans toward Europe.

Orban built a steel fence on Hungary's border with Serbia in 2015 to seal off the Syrian refugees' Balkan route of migration, used by hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the conflict to get to Western Europe.

Turkey, which hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees, threatened to 'open the gates' to allow those already in the country to head for Europe if the EU portrayed Turkey's incursion into northeast Syria negatively.

'The next weeks will decide what Turkey does with these people,' Orban told private broadcaster HirTV in an interview late on October 16.

'If Turkey sets off further hundreds of thousands on top of this, then we will need to use force to protect the Hungarian border and the Serbian-Hungarian frontier and I do not wish for anyone that we should need to resort to that,' Orban said.

Orban's nationalist government has forged close relations with Russia, Turkey, and China.

Erdogan is due to visit Budapest early next month.

With reporting by AP, Reuters, AFP, dpa, and the BBC

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036

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