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US envoys head to Turkey as Erdogan says he won’t agree to truce in north Syria

Turkish President Erdogan (U.S. State Department)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

U.S. President Donald Trump is dispatching his vice president, top diplomat, and national-security adviser to Ankara on October 16 to demand a cease-fire while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said he will “never” order a truce in northern Syria.

Vice President Mike Pence on the previous day said he would meet with Erdogan on October 17 and “voice the United States’ commitment to reach an immediate cease-fire and the conditions for a negotiated settlement,” his office said in a statement.

He will be accompanied by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national-security adviser Robert O’Brien.

However, Erdogan on October 16 dismissed calls from foreign powers who have demanded a cease-fire.

“There are some leaders who are trying to mediate…. There has never been any such thing in the history of the Turkish republic as the state sitting at the same table with a terrorist organization,” Erdogan told parliament.

“Our proposal is that right now, tonight, all the terrorists lay down their arms, their equipment and everything, destroy all their traps and get out of the safe zone that we have designated,” he said.

On October 15, Erdogan said, “We can never declare a cease-fire.”

The U.S. delegation’s visit comes two days after Trump imposed sanctions on three Turkish cabinet officials and raised tariffs on the country’s steel in a move that Democratic and Republican lawmakers said they will buttress with harsher restrictive measures.

“Our proposed sanctions will be very biting and they will stay in effect until Turkey ends its aggression against the Syrian Kurds and withdraws its forces and proxies from the areas that it’s taken,” said Senator Chris Van Hollen (Democrat-Maryland).

Senator Lindsey Graham (Republican-South Carolina) said lawmakers will introduce the bill on October 17.

Last week, Trump announced a troop withdrawal from Kurdish-held areas near the Turkish border and said in a statement that the United States won’t be interfering with a planned invasion by Ankara.

About 1,000 U.S. soldiers were redeployed from the area as Turkish troops set up a buffer zone 30 kilometers deep. Turkish forces are attempting to clear Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) from the border region and resettle some 2 million Syrian refugees there.

Turkey regards the largest militia in the SDF a terrorist organization.

Russia brokered a deal between the Kurds and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to allow Syrian troops along the border to stave off Turkey’s incursion.

In turn, Russia has said it won’t allow clashes between Turkish and Syrian forces as Ankara pressed on with its offensive.

On October 16, the Kremlin said it expects Turkey’s military action in Syria to be proportionate to its declared goal.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia respects “Turkey’s right to take measures to ensure its security” but also expected it be “proportionate to the task.” He wouldn’t comment on how long Moscow believes the Turkish offensive should last.

Peskov’s statement came after Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke with Erdogan in a call on October 15, inviting him to the Kremlin for talks on Syria.

“The invitation has been accepted,” a Kremlin statement said.

Russia, a key military ally of Assad, has deployed troops in the country since 2015.

Syrian forces have since taken control of an area of more than 1,000 square kilometers around Manbij, the Russian Defense Ministry was quoted as saying.

The ministry said that the Syrian Army had taken control of the Tabqa military airfield, two hydroelectric power plants, and several bridges across the Euphrates River.

Kelly Craft, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said that Washington is “deeply concerned” about the Russian patrols in the region.

The SDF has been a key ally of the United States in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria. About 11,000 Kurds lost their lives as they helped Western powers crush IS.

In the first week of the Turkish offensive, more than 150 SDF fighters were killed, along with nearly 130 fighters from Turkish-backed Syrian factions, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The Britain-based group said at least 69 civilians were also killed in Syria.

Turkish officials say six of its soldiers have died, as well as at least 20 Turkish civilians killed by Kurdish mortar fire across the Syrian border.

At least 190,000 people have fled their homes in northern Syria, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).