U.S. President Donald Trump’s national security adviser flew to Turkey on Wednesday as part of an emergency delegation to try to persuade Ankara to halt an assault on northern Syria that has forced Washington into an abrupt retreat.
Robert O’Brien, who has been national security adviser for a month, was due to meet Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, ahead of talks the following day between Vice President Mike Pence and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan.
The Trump administration is trying to contain the fallout from Erdogan’s decision to send forces last week to attack Syrian Kurdish militia, Washington’s close allies. Erdogan repeated his insistence that there would be no ceasefire.
The Turkish assault, launched after a phone call between Erdogan and Trump, forced Washington to abandon a strategy in place for five years and pull its entire force out of northern Syria. Syrian government forces, backed by Washington’s adversaries Russia and Iran, have swiftly advanced into territory formerly patrolled by U.S. troops.
The Turkish assault has forced tens of thousands of civilians to flee, raised doubt about the fate of thousands of Islamic State fighters in Kurdish jails and angered some of Trump’s fellow Republicans, who accuse the president of abandoning loyal allies.
Washington announced a package of sanctions to punish Turkey on Monday, although Trump’s critics said the measures were too feeble to have an impact.
Twenty-four hours later U.S. prosecutors’ charges were unveiled against Turkey’s majority state-owned Halkbank for taking part in a multi-billion dollar scheme to evade Iran sanctions. Washington says the case is unrelated to politics. Halkbank called it part of the sanctions against Turkey.
U.S. “SHOW OF FORCE” OVER KOBANI
The Turkish advance, and Washington’s need to swiftly evacuate its own forces, have brought the United States and Turkey - both allies in NATO - close to direct confrontation on the battlefield. Washington has complained about Turkish artillery fire near its troops.
In the latest potential flashpoint, U.S. military aircraft carried out a “show of force” over the border city of Kobani after Turkish-backed fighters came close to American troops based there, a U.S. official said.
Pence said Erdogan had promised to Trump by phone that Turkey would not attack Kobani, a strategically important border city with a particular symbolic resonance as the place where U.S. forces first came to the aid of Kurds fighting against Islamic State, which massacred Kurdish civilians there in 2014.
“Mr Trump’s remark on Kobani was ‘Don’t strike there’,” Erdogan told reporters late on Tuesday. “We said that we had only done an encircling operation there at the moment.”
“We are not really interested with inside Kobani right now. But we said ‘If there is a different development, we may intervene’,” Erdogan said.
Hours after Washington announced its pullout on Sunday, the Kurds, who lost thousands of fighters waging battle against Islamic State in a five-year alliance with the United States, made an abrupt deal with Washington’s adversaries, the Russian- and Iranian-backed government of President Bashar al-Assad.
Russia-backed Syrian troops have swiftly moved into towns across the breadth of the Kurdish-held area, including the city of Manbij, a major target of Turkey which U.S. forces said on Tuesday they had quit.
Reuters journalists travelling with Syrian government forces on Tuesday entered Manbij and saw Russian and Syrian flags flying from buildings near the city. Russian state television reported on Wednesday that Syrian government forces had occupied bases abandoned by U.S. troops.
Erdogan said he had told Russian President Vladimir Putin that he could move his forces into Manbij, provided that the Kurdish YPG militia was cleared out.
“I told this to Mr Putin as well,” Erdogan said. “If you are clearing Manbij of terrorist organisations, then go ahead, you or the regime can provide all the logistics. But if you are not going to do this, the people there are telling us to save them.”
On Wednesday, Erdogan said Turkey’s planned safe zone would extend from Manbij to the Iraqi border. Erdogan is due to visit Moscow for talks with Putin late this month.
“WE WILL NEVER DECLARE A CEASEFIRE”
Erdogan says Trump approved his plans for a “safe zone” around 30 km (20 miles) inside Syria, stretching hundreds of miles from the Euphrates river in the west to the Iraqi border in the east. Trump says he did not endorse the Turkish plans but Washington cannot stay to police the Middle East.
“They say ‘declare a ceasefire’. We will never declare a ceasefire,” Erdogan told reporters on a plane back from a visit to Azerbaijan late on Tuesday. “They are pressuring us to stop the operation. They are announcing sanctions. Our goal is clear. We are not worried about any sanctions,” he said.
The Turkish campaign shows no sign of abating on the ground, with most of the fighting so far around two border cities, Ras al Ain and Tel Abyad. A Reuters cameraman in the Turkish border town of Ceylanpinar reported the sound of heavy gunfire just across the frontier in Ras al Ain, a town which Turkey’s defence ministry had earlier said its forces control.
Although U.S. sanctions announced by Trump so far - mainly a hike in steel tariffs and a pause in trade talks - have been mild, the criminal case against its second biggest state lender Halkbank was a reminder that Turkey’s economy could be vulnerable to measures that target its financial system.
The charges against Halkbank stem from a case that has caused friction in U.S. relations with Turkey for years. Shares of Halkbank plunged as much 7% on Wednesday, despite a ban on short selling, after U.S. prosecutors charged it with taking part in a multibillion-dollar scheme to evade U.S. sanctions on Iran.
The U.S. indictment published Tuesday alleges Halkbank conducted fraud, money laundering, and other sanctions offences.