The U.S. delegation President Donald Trump is sending to try to negotiate a ceasefire and settlement between Turkey and U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria will depart in the next 24 hours, a senior administration official said Tuesday.
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The delegation will include Vice President Mike Pence, as he announced Monday, and special envoy for Syria Jim Jeffrey, among others, but it’s unclear who they will meet in Ankara after Turkey rejected talks with what it considers “terrorists.” The official declined to say who they will meet beyond, “Turkey is well aware of our travel plans.”
Two days after a fateful phone call between Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey launched an operation last Wednesday against the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, the majority-Kurdish troops that the U.S. backed, armed and fought alongside against ISIS. Before the offensive began, Trump announced he was withdrawing two attachments of U.S. troops in the area — a move critics have blasted as giving a green light to Erdogan, but which the senior official defended as a “tactical” decision to keep them out of the fray.
“We have absolutely no — I want to repeat here — we have no decision at any level ever taken by the United States to provide military protection to the SDF, nor did we ever by any authoritative source — underline authoritative source — tell the SDF that we would protect them militarily. We told them many times that we would do everything in our power short of military action to try to prevail upon the Turks not to come in,” the official told reporters during a briefing.
They added, “We failed in our mission to deter Turkey from coming in.”
In the days since the offensive began, the U.S. has escalated pressure on Turkey, including sanctioning the defense, energy and interior ministers, and the defense and energy ministries Monday.
But Turkey has remained defiant so far. Fahrettin Altun, a senior communications adviser to Erdogan, told AFP news agency Tuesday, “We will continue to combat all terrorist groups, including Daesh, whether or not the world agrees to support our efforts,” using an Arabic name for ISIS.
Turkey is still “mulling over the impact of the sanctions and other action that we communicated to them,” the official said, but the administration hopes now that they will be open to conversations to halt their operations.
“Our first goal is to basically have a heart-to-heart talk with the Turks … We’re very concerned about their actions and the threat that they’ve presented to peace, security, stability and the territorial integrity of Syria,” the official said.
“We are in high gear on our diplomacy, led by the president,” the official added, noting that Trump talked to Erdogan and SDF General Mazloum yesterday “to press for a ceasefire.”
Turkey has already said they won’t negotiate with the Syrian Kurdish forces because it considers them terrorists aligned with Kurdish separatists in Turkey.
The U.S. and Turkey also already had an agreement reached in the months since ISIS’s caliphate fell to secure that area, prevent a resurgence of ISIS and address Turkey’s security concerns. But Turkey said it didn’t work for them and tore it up, invading Kurdish-held territory instead.
When asked by ABC News what the U.S. delegation can get different this time, the official said, “The president has directed us to do this… We are very aware that the Turks entered into an agreement with us and they then decided that they would pull out of that agreement, and we’re very concerned about that happening again.”
As Russian and Syrian forces of strongman Assad took control of the key city Manbij Tuesday, they were coordinating with the U.S., according to the official, using an existing deconfliction line that has helped to reduce risk between Russian and U.S. troops for years now. All U.S. forces are now out of Manbij as the “orderly, deliberate, responsible ground withdrawal” continues, the official said.
The U.S. is also concerned about the human rights violations by Turkish-sponsored opposition groups — which the U.S. holds Turkey responsible for, the official added, calling them “thugs and bandits and pirates that should be wiped off the face of the earth.”