Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says he will decide whether to go ahead with a planned visit next month to the United States after meetings with an American delegation in Turkey this week, as the nation intensifies its military offensive into Syria.
Erdogan said Wednesday he would re-evaluate the trip to the U.S. because “arguments, debates, conversations being held in Congress regarding my person, my family and my minister friends” were extremely disrespectful to the Turkish government. Erdogan and U.S. President Donald Trump are due to meet in Washington on Nov. 13.
The Turkish president’s comments come a day ahead of a visit by U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence to the Turkish capital of Ankara. Pence is tasked with negotiating an end to the attacks along the Syrian border, while the Kremlin said Erdogan had accepted an invitation by Russian President Vladimir Putin to visit Russia “in coming days” to discuss Syria.
Russia and the U.S. have launched diplomatic forays to end Turkey’s military operations, but Erdogan on Wednesday defied pressure for a ceasefire and said the only way the offensive would end was if Syrian Kurdish fighters leave a designated border area “by tonight.”
The Kremlin said it was working to prevent a conflict between Turkish troops and Syrian government forces that have moved in to Kurdish-held areas in the northeast. The Kurdish administration invited the Syrian military in to shield it from Turkish attacks.
Russia has moved quickly to further entrench its leadership role in the region after Trump ordered the pullout of U.S. forces in northeastern Syria. The American move effectively abandoned Kurdish fighters and cleared the way for Turkey’s invasion aimed at crushing them. After heavy criticism from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, Washington then scrambled to find new leverage with the Turks, imposing economic sanctions aimed at forcing a cease-fire.
‘We are not looking for a peace mediator’
In an address to his ruling party legislators, Erdogan said Turkey would not be coerced into stopping its offensive or accept offers for a mediation with the Kurdish fighters, which Turkey considers as terrorists. He vowed to press ahead with the incursion until Turkish troops reach a depth of 30 to 35 kilometres inside Syria along a border area where Turkey intends to form a “safe zone.”
“Our proposal is for the terrorists to lay down their arms, leave their equipment, destroy the traps they have created and leave the safe zone we [have] designated, as of tonight,” Erdogan said. “If this is done, our Operation Peace Spring will end by itself.”
Erdogan ruled out direct or indirect talks with the Kurdish fighters, saying Turkey will not negotiate with them.
“We are not looking for a peace mediator nor do we need one.”
With the Turkish assault in its eighth day, Turkish forces and Kurdish fighters were still battling heavily Wednesday over the border town of Ras al-Ayn. Turkey had announced it captured the town days ago, but its hold now appeared uncertain amid Kurdish incursion.
As U.S. exits Syria, Russia moves to fill power void
The U.S.’s abrupt withdrawal of its troops pushed the Kurds to strike a deal with the Russia-backed government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, allowing its forces to return to regions of northern Syria it had abandoned at the height of the eight-year-old civil war.
It has also allowed Moscow to take a more prominent role as an interlocutor among Assad, the former U.S.-allied Kurds and the U.S.’s NATO ally Turkey.
On Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia is committed to mediating between the Syrian government and Turkey.
Russia has already announced it had deployed troops outside the flashpoint town of Manbij to keep apart the two forces. Syrian forces took control of Manbij as U.S. troops completed their pull-out from the town on Tuesday. The Syrian and Russian deployments appear to have thwarted Turkey’s hopes to capture the town, located just west of the Euphrates River, in its offensive.
Lavrov also said Moscow will also continue to encourage Syria’s Kurds and government to seek rapprochement following the U.S. withdrawal. The Kurdish are hoping to reach a deal with Damascus that preserves at least some degree of the autonomy they seized for themselves amid Syria’s civil war.
During a visit to Iraq last week, Lavrov met with the leaders of the Kurdish autonomous region and said Moscow is sympathetic to their need for autonomy.
Lavrov also blamed the U.S. and Western nations for undermining the Syrian state, saying this pushed “the Kurds toward separatism and confrontation with Arab tribes.”
In another sign of Moscow’s rising profile, France suggested it will also work more closely with Russia in Syria.
French Foreign Minister Jean Yves Le Drian said in an interview on French television channel BFM Wednesday that France is notably now looking to Russia, given their “common interests” in defeating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in Syria.
He called on the EU and other members of the coalition fighting ISIS in Syria to regroup as the U.S. appeared to abdicate its leadership role in the region.