A US delegation is pressing Turkey to accept a ceasefire in northern Syria hours after Donald Trump declared the US has no stake in defending Kurdish fighters who died by the thousands as America’s partners against so-called Islamic State extremists.
Vice President Mike Pence and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wore dour expressions as they shook hands before a nearly 90-minute one-on-one meeting, and during an expanded bilateral meeting with the full delegations.
After hours of meetings it was not immediately clear if there was any movement toward a ceasefire.
The US delegation, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien, were expected to warn Mr Erdogan that he will face additional economic sanctions if he does not halt his assault on Kurdish forces.
However, Mr Trump suggested on Wednesday that a Kurdish group was a greater terror threat than the Islamic State group, and he welcomed the efforts of Russia and the Assad government to fill the void left after he ordered the removal of nearly all US troops from Syria amid a Turkish assault on the Kurds.
“Syria may have some help with Russia, and that’s fine,” Mr Trump said. “They’ve got a lot of sand over there. So, there’s a lot of sand that they can play with.”
He added: “Let them fight their own wars.”
The split-screen foreign policy moment proved difficult to reconcile and came during perhaps the darkest moment for the modern US-Turkey relationship and a time of trial for Mr Trump and his Republican Party allies.
Severe condemnation of Mr Trump’s failure to deter Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s assault on the Kurds sparked bipartisan outrage in the US and calls for swift punishment for the Nato ally.
Republicans and Democrats in the House, bitterly divided over the Trump impeachment inquiry, banded together for an overwhelming 354-60 denunciation of the US troop withdrawal.
Many lawmakers expressed worry that the withdrawal may lead to revival of IS as well as Russian presence and influence in the area — in addition to the slaughter of many Kurds.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell publicly broke with Mr Trump to call the US relationship with the Kurds “a great alliance”.
“I’m sorry that we are where we are. I hope the vice president and the secretary of state can somehow repair the damage,” Mr McConnell said.
The White House disclosed that Mr Trump had both cajoled and threatened Mr Erdogan in an unusual letter last week, urging him to act only in “the right and humane way” in Syria. The letter was sent the same day Mr Erdogan launched the major offensive against the Kurds.
Mr Trump started on a positive note by suggesting they “work out a good deal,” but then talked about crippling economic sanctions and concluded that the world “will look upon you forever as the devil if good things don’t happen. Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!”.
Mr Trump did place some sanctions on Monday on Turkey for the offensive. But as his emissaries were departing to threaten even tougher actions in the days ahead, Mr Trump appeared to undercut their negotiating stance. He said the US has no business in the region — and not to worry about the Kurdish fighters.
“If Turkey goes onto Syria, that’s between Turkey and Syria, it’s not between Turkey and the United States,” Mr Trump said during an Oval Office meeting with Italian President Sergio Mattarella.