The Trump administration intensified its damage control efforts over the ongoing Turkish assault against Kurds who once fought for and alongside the US, announcing on Tuesday the imminent departure of a delegation to Ankara.
In a diplomatic show of force, President Donald Trump is dispatching Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser Robert O’Brien as part of the delegation, meant to broker a deal to stop the Turkish military operation in Syria.
The visit could become a diplomatic embarrassment, as Russia announced that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would be coming for a “working visit” in the next few days and Erdogan told the Turkish press he’ll never agree to a ceasefire.
A senior administration official said the US was “very concerned” that even if a deal were reached, the Turkish government might renege on its obligations.
“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,” they told reporters Tuesday.
The official said Trump had tasked his administration with trying to broker a ceasefire with Turkish officials, but clarified that “by a ceasefire, what I mean is forces on the ground stop moving on the ground.”
‘Hoping … they’ll take us more seriously’
The delegation will be departing for Ankara in the next 24 hours, the official said. They declined to discuss scheduled meetings for the trip. The delegation’s departure comes after Trump announced sanctions against Turkey and threatened to “destroy” the country’s economy if it does not halt its incursion.
The senior administration official suggested that Turkey might be more inclined to honor a deal because of the sanctions.
“I’m hoping that under those conditions they’ll take us more seriously this time and realize that if they want to break out of the next agreement with us, they’re simply going to see these rolling sanctions continue and be far worse than the ones they saw last year,” the official said.
However, the Turkish position on a potential mediation is that their government does not negotiate with “terrorists,” which they consider the Kurdish forces to be.
Sen. John Cornyn said Tuesday that he was “skeptical sanctions will change Erdogan’s mind.”
“He has a blood feud with the Kurds. He considers them a terrorist organization,” the Texas Republican said.
Moreover, analysts have noted that the sanctions Trump put in place Monday lack any real bite and aren’t likely to deter Ankara.
“So far, we really haven’t seen any punishment” for Turkey’s transgressions, said Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
On Tuesday, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said he and other lawmakers would be unveiling their own sanctions Thursday.
And a senior defense official, briefing reporters Tuesday, said the Department of Defense would receive a waiver that would prevent the sanctions on the Turkish Defense Ministry from impacting US arms sales to Turkey.
Another defense official clarified that the US has not made a final determination about the future of arms sales to Ankara.
Syrian Democratic Forces turn to Assad and Moscow
As the US makes efforts with Ankara, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces on the ground have turned to Moscow and the regime of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad in the face of abandonment by American forces. In a meeting with a top US diplomat last week, Syrian Democratic Forces Commander Gen. Mazloum Kobani Abdi accused the US of “leaving us to be slaughtered.” Days later, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced that Trump was ordering the remaining American forces out of northern Syria.
On Tuesday, a US defense official told CNN that the first planeloads of US weapons and equipment had left Syria as forces were rapidly consolidated into fewer locations.
The senior administration official claimed Tuesday that the US had never promised to provide military protection to its allies in the fight against ISIS.
“We told them many times we would do everything in our power short of military action to try to prevail upon the Turks not to come in, and that if the Turks did come in, it would be a disaster and it would be a very strong reaction from the United States,” the official said.
Nonetheless, more than half a dozen US military and defense officials expressed anger and frustration at the Trump administration’s refusal to support the Syrian Kurds and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have condemned what they see as a betrayal of a trusted ally.
‘Thugs and bandits and pirates’
Moreover, numerous US officials have lamented that the Turkish incursion has diminished security in the region.
“Despite the opposition and repeated warnings from the United States and the international community, Turkish President Erdogan ordered a unilateral invasion of northern Syria that has resulted in widespread casualties, refugees, destruction, insecurity, and a growing threat to US military forces,” Esper said in a statement Monday.
In a statement on the same day, Pompeo said, “As the President has made clear, Turkey’s actions in northeast Syria severely undermine the D-ISIS campaign, endanger civilians, and threaten the security of the entire region.”
The senior administration official on Tuesday expressed dismay at the “Turkish-supported Syrian opposition elements” being used as part of the operation.
“We know the order of battle of the Turkish military and we know the number of troops that are in there; it’s not that large. They could have used Turkish regular troops,” the official told reporters. “Instead they decided to use these thugs and bandits and pirates that should be wiped off the face of the Earth.”
On Tuesday, a US official told CNN that Turkish-backed forces had come very close to a combined Syrian Democratic Forces and coalition base, putting American forces on the ground directly at risk and violating a standing agreement with the US to not get close enough to threaten its troops. The official also said American forces had responded with a show of force.
As the situation on the ground deteriorates, Republicans, Democrats and former officials who have served administrations of both parties say the Trump move hands a victory to Syria, Russia and Iran, betrays the Kurds, will reverse gains against ISIS and will undermine US credibility and trustworthiness in ways that will make it harder to form future alliances.
British commentator Edward Luce said that “message will be heard globally” as countries in east Asia squeezed by China, in Europe, “where it seems to be Christmas every day for Putin,” and in the Middle East see “they cannot place trust in America.”
Perhaps to counter this growing narrative, the State Department on Tuesday tweeted a quote from an interview Pompeo had given four days earlier, declaring that “we’re leading from the front, to build out coalitions that can effectively deal with some of the most difficult challenges facing the world today.”
CNN’s Ryan Browne, Barbara Starr, Nick Paton Walsh and Ted Barrett contributed to this report.