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US imposes sanctions on Turkish ministers over Syria offensive

Turkish Defence Minister Ismet Yilmaz (Secretary of Defense/WikiCommons)

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

The United States has imposed sanctions on Turkey’s defense minister and two other ministers in response to Ankara’s military assault on northeast Syria, as President Donald Trump called his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to demand an immediate cease-fire.

Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, and Energy Minister Fatih Donmez were placed on the U.S. Treasury’s sanctions blacklist, freezing their U.S. assets and banning U.S. or U.S.-related transactions with them.

The Defense and Energy ministries were also hit with sanctions, the Treasury said on October 14.

“The United States is holding the Turkish government accountable for escalating violence by Turkish forces, endangering innocent civilians, and destabilizing the region,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said Trump called for an immediate cease-fire in Syria during a phone call with Erdogan. Pence said he would soon travel to the region in an effort to mediate the crisis that has seen more than 160,000 civilians flee their homes in the area.

Turkey launched the attack last week with the declared aim to push the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) from the border region. Turkey regards the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is the largest militia in the SDF, as a terrorist organization.

“The United States of America simply is not going to tolerate Turkey’s invasion in Syria any further. We are calling on Turkey to stand down, end the violence and come to the negotiating table,” Pence told reporters.

Trump also said he would soon issue an executive order to end negotiations with Ankara on a $100 billion trade agreement and boost tariffs on Turkish steel to 50 percent in response to the country’s offensive on northeastern Syria.

“I am fully prepared to swiftly destroy Turkey’s economy if Turkish leaders continue down this dangerous and destructive path,” Trump said in a statement on October 14, after the United States, the Syrian Kurds’ main ally, announced it would withdraw troops from the country.

Earlier in the day, Syrian government forces started to reach positions in the northeast of the country after Damascus agreed to help Kurdish militias facing the Turkish assault.

Turkey’s invasion came after Trump decided to withdraw forces from outposts in northern Syria where they have been stationed for years.

Turkey wants to establish a “safe zone” in the area, to resettle up to 2 million Syrian refugees currently on Turkish territory.

Many of the refugees are not Kurds and critics warn this could lead to ethnic cleansing of the local Kurdish population.

In his statement, Trump said the roughly 1,000 U.S. troops he had ordered to leave Syria will remain in the Middle East to prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State (IS) militant group.

He also confirmed that a small number of troops will remain at a base in southern Syria.

A monitoring group and Kurdish sources said on October 15 that SDF forces had taken back full control of a key border town in northeast Syria after launching an overnight attack on Turkish troops and their rebel allies.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said SDF fighters had taken control of the city of Ras al-Ain from Turkish troops and their allies who had taken over the city two days ago.

The observatory said that “fortifications, tunnel networks, and a continuous supply of reinforcements” had enabled the SDF to hold off Turkish efforts to take the town.

At least 70 civilians and 135 SDF fighters have been killed since the offensive was launched on October 9, the observatory said, adding that 120 pro-Turkish Syrian fighters were also killed.

The United Nations says 160,000 people have fled their homes.

Syrian Kurdish leaders say Moscow brokered a deal with President Bashar al-Assad’s government for Syrian troops to move along the border to stave off Turkey’s incursion.

Top Kurdish politician Aldar Xelil said the “emergency measure” with oversight from Assad’s key ally, Russia, was meant to block the Turkish offensive.

“After the Americans abandoned the region, and gave the green light for the Turkish attack, we were forced to explore another option,” senior Kurdish official Badran Jia Kurd said.

Meanwhile, Erdogan defended Turkey’s offensive in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, calling on the international community to support the initiative or “begin admitting refugees” from Syria.