Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed Wednesday that nothing would prevent him from finishing his mission to rid northern Syria of Kurdish forces, warning the U.S. and Europe that “no power can stop us.”
“We informed the U.S., EU, and Russia before the operation began that we want this terrorist organization to be removed from our borders,” Erdogan told lawmakers in Ankara, referring to the YPG. “When the zone from Manbij to Iraq that is 35km [is cleared] when we could establish a safe zone, this operation will be over. But until that point, no power can stop us.”
The comments come as heavy fighting continues in northeastern Syria for an eighth straight day, after President Trump’s decision to withdraw troops sparked Turkey’s military action to crush Kurdish-led forces. Erdogan says that once the “safe zone” is established, it will be repopulated with millions of returned Syrian refugees.
Since the conflict began on Oct. 9, at least 71 civilians have been killed, including 21 children, according to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, a U.K.-based monitoring group. In addition, 135 Kurdish-led fighters, 122 pro-Turkish fighters, and eight Turkish soldiers have died.
Trump has been scrambling to halt the carnage unleashed by his decision to withdraw the troops, which virtually greenlit the Turkish assault in northern Syria. He has asked Turkey to declare a ceasefire and offered to facilitate mediation with the Kurdish forces.
But Erdogan told reporters on a flight from Baku on Tuesday: “We can never declare a ceasefire,” adding he would “not negotiate with a terrorist organization.”
On Monday, Trump slapped sanctions on Turkey, promising that he is “prepared to swiftly destroy Turkey's economy if Turkish leaders continue down this dangerous and destructive path.”
But Erdogan appears unfazed, telling reporters Tuesday that Ankara is “not concerned by the sanctions,” and reiterating his position that the military offensive will only end when all Kurdish forces are removed.
“We are determined to continue the operation until the end, without paying attention to threats. We will absolutely finish the job we started. Our battle will continue until ultimate victory is achieved,” he said in a speech in Baku on Tuesday.
Erdogan digs in
In a bid to resolve the crisis, a White House a delegation led by Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is on its way to Ankara. The pair were scheduled to meet Erdogan on Thursday to discuss a possible ceasefire, but Erdogan told Sky News on Wednesday that he will no longer meet with Pence or Pompeo. The Turkish strongman said he would only speak to Trump when he visits Turkey.
“When Donald Trump comes here, I will talk to him,” Erdogan said.
However, one journalist subsequently suggested there had been some mistranslation, as Erdogan had said moments earlier that he did plan on meeting Pence and Pompeo.
Trump has been facing significant backlash from fellow Republicans, and from the media, for his decision to withdraw troops from Syria. But Erdogan urged the U.S. president to ignore the media criticism. “You are now under their influence. Don’t listen to them, you are a strong leader,” Erdogan said Tuesday.
When asked about Trump’s habit of using Twitter to announce foreign policy shifts, the Turkish leader told reporters it was difficult to keep up. “When we take a look at Mr. Trump’s Twitter posts, we can no longer follow them. We cannot keep track," he said Tuesday.
Moscow fills the vacuum
As the U.S. has withdrawn, Russia has seized the opportunity to cement its position as a key powerbroker in the region: abandoned by the U.S., Kurdish forces have turned to the Russian-backed Syrian regime of Bashar Al Assad for support. Moscow has also deployed troops to the town of Manbij in a bid to keep advancing Turkish troops and Syrian troops apart.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov blamed the U.S. on Wednesday for pushing “the Kurds toward separatism and confrontation with Arab tribes.”
Erdogan spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the phone on Tuesday, and said he did not mind the Russian-backed Syrian troops being deployed to the region, as long as Kurdish fighters leave.
“I told this to Mr. Putin. If you are clearing Manbij of terrorist organizations, 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," Erdogan told reporters on Tuesday.
Cover: Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses the World Turkish Business Council meeting, in Baku, Azerbaijan, Monday. Oct. 14, 2019. Erdogan says Turkey's military offensive into northeast Syria is as "vital" to Turkey as its 1974 military intervention in Cyprus, which split the island in two. (Presidential Press Service via AP, Pool)