Turkey defiant on Syria op as US demands ceasefire
Ceylanpinar (Turkey): Turkey rebuffed international pressure to curb its military offensive against Kurdish militants in Syria on Wednesday as US President Donald Trump dispatched his deputy Mike Pence to Ankara to demand a ceasefire.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he would not meet with Pence, as the White House had planned for Thursday, and rejected any negotiations with Kurdish militants.
The only way to solve Syria's problems, he told parliament, was for the Kurdish forces to "lay down their arms... destroy all their traps and get out of the safe zone that we have designated."
Battles raged in the key Syrian border town of Ras al-Ain on Wednesday, 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 Trump dispatching Pence along with his top diplomat Mike Pompeo to Turkey amid the greatest crisis in relations for decades between the NATO allies.
But Erdogan told Sky News: "I will not meet with them. I will speak when Trump comes."
Moscow has stepped into the void left by Trump's withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria, deploying patrols to prevent clashes between Syrian and Turkish forces.
Russian TV showed its forces alongside Syrian troops taking up positions in and around the key town of Manbij following the US pull-back.
The Kremlin said it would host Erdogan for a meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in the coming days, to ensure the operation does not turn into all-out war between Turkey and Syria.
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 cabinet officials and raising tariffs on Turkish steel.
Pence's office had earlier released a statement that he would meet Erdogan on Thursday and "voice the United States' commitment to reach an immediate ceasefire and the conditions for a negotiated settlement".
He reiterated that Trump will pursue "punishing economic sanctions" until a resolution is reached.
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 it will endanger the battle against the Islamic State group, which was led on the ground by Kurdish forces. Thousands of IS prisoners are held in Kurdish-run camps in the region.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Wednesday that the camps were not "currently" under threat from the operation, but Europe has taken an increasingly tough line with Turkey.
Britain and Spain became the latest powers to suspend military exports to Turkey on Tuesday. Canada made a similar move.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have mounted a desperate defence to the east of Ras al-Ain, using tunnels, berms and trenches.
An AFP correspondent said clashes around the town were ongoing on Wednesday despite Ankara's repeated claims it had captured the area.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Kurdish fighters had launched "a large counterattack against Turkish forces and their Syrian proxies near Ras al-Ain" on Tuesday and reported "fierce combat" in the west of the town as well as in Tal Abyad.
Since launching their assault on October 9, Turkish-backed forces have secured more than 100 kilometres (60 miles) of border, but Ras al-Ain –Siri Kani in Kurdish –has held out.