Turkey yesterday remained defiant against mounting international pressure to curb its military offensive against Kurdish militants in Syria, raising tensions with Washington as US Vice President Mike Pence headed for Ankara to demand a ceasefire.
Battles raged in the key Syrian border town of Ras al-Ain as dawn broke yesterday, with Kurdish fighters trying to hold off the onslaught by Turkish-backed forces, now in its second week.
The fighting has triggered a flurry of diplomacy among major powers, with US President Donald Trump dispatching to Turkey Pence and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo amid the greatest crisis in relations for decades between the allies.
The Kremlin said it would host Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the coming days, to ensure the operation does not turn into an all-out war between Turkey and Syria.
Russia has stepped into the void caused by Trump’s withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria, deploying patrols to prevent clashes between Syrian and Turkish forces.
Trump — facing mounting criticism in Washington over his decision to pull 1,000 troops out of the conflict zone, as well as an unrelated impeachment inquiry — has hit back at Erdogan, slapping sanctions on three Turkish Cabinet officials and raising tariffs on Turkish steel.
Pence said he would meet with Erdogan today and “voice the United States’ commitment to reach an immediate ceasefire and the conditions for a negotiated settlement,” his office said in a statement.
He said that Trump would pursue “punishing economic sanctions” until a resolution is reached, but Erdogan remained unfazed by the pressure, telling reporters: “They tell us ‘to declare a ceasefire.’ We can never declare a ceasefire.”
The operation has widespread support in Turkey, where decades of bloody insurgency by Kurdish militants has killed tens of thousands of people, but Western powers are spooked that the operation is endangering the battle against the Islamic State group, which was led on the ground by Kurdish forces.
Thousands of Islamic State prisoners are held in Kurdish-run camps in the region.
French Minister of Europe and Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian yesterday said that the camps were not “currently” under threat from the operation, but Europe has taken an increasingly tough line with Turkey.
Britain and Spain on Tuesday became the latest powers to suspend military exports to Turkey. Canada made a similar move.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have mounted a desperate defense to the east of Ras al-Ain, using tunnels, berms and trenches.
A correspondent said clashes around the town were ongoing yesterday, despite Ankara’s repeated claims it had captured the area.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights on Tuesday said that Kurdish fighters had launched “a large counterattack against Turkish forces and their Syrian proxies near Ras al-Ain,” and reported “fierce combat” in the west of the town as well as in Tal Abyad.
Since launching their assault on Oct. 9, Turkish-backed forces have secured more than 100km of the border, but Ras al-Ain has held out.
Erdogan, who like Trump faces political difficulties at home, wants to create a buffer zone stretching 30km from the border into Syria.
He wants to destroy Kurdish hopes of an autonomous enclave that could serve as a launching pad for attacks in Turkey, as well as to resettle some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees it is hosting.
“God willing, we will quickly secure the region stretching from Manbij to our border with Iraq,” Erdogan said.
The offensive has killed dozens of civilians, mostly on the Kurdish side, and displaced at least 160,000 people.
Syrian forces have returned to the region for the first time in years, raising their flag in Manbij as part of a deal with the Kurds.
Russia said its military police were patrolling a zone separating regime and Turkish troops, in cooperation with Ankara.
With Trump’s critics saying that he handed over US allies and stretches of Syria to Russia, the US tried to play down Moscow’s role.
“The number of Russians is very, very limited, but it only takes a few Russians with a big Russian flag to get everybody to pay attention,” a senior administration official told reporters in Washington.
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