Turkish offensive on Syria continues

45

]Turkey vowed to press ahead with offensive in northern Syria despite US sanctions and growing calls for it to stop, while Syria’s Russia-backed army moved on key city Manbij abandoned by US forces.

“They say ‘declare a ceasefire’. We will never declare a ceasefire,” Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan told reporters after visiting Baku.

“They are pressuring us to stop the operation. They are announcing sanctions. Our goal is clear. We are not worried about sanctions.”

Erdogan said an attack from Manbij that killed a Turkish soldier was launched by Syrian government forces.

Reuters journalists accompanied Syrian government forces who entered Manbij, a flashpoint where US troops previously conducted joint patrols with Turkey.

Russian and Syrian flags were flying from a building on the city outskirts and from a convoy of military vehicles.

Russia’s Interfax news agency, citing Moscow’s Defence Ministry, said Syrian forces took control of an area of more than 1,000 square km around Manbij, including Tabqa military airfield.

US President Donald Trump’s unexpected decision to withhold protection from Syria’s Kurds after a phone call with Erdogan a week ago upended five years of US policy on Syria.

As well as clearing the way for the Turkish incursion, the US withdrawal gives a free hand to Washington adversaries in the world’s deadliest ongoing war – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies.

Syrian army deployments into Kurdish-held territory amount to a victory for Assad and Russia, giving a foothold in the largest remaining swathe of Syria beyond their grasp through much of the eight-year war.

The US announced on Sunday it was withdrawing its entire force of 1 000 troops from northern Syria. Its former Kurdish allies immediately forged a new alliance with Assad’s government, inviting the army into towns across their territory.

A Reuters cameraman on the Turkish frontier reported heavy bombardment on Tuesday of Syrian border town Ras al Ain, where an SDF spokesman reported a battle.

US military aircraft carried out a “show of force” around Kobani after Turkish-backed fighters came close to American forces, a US official told Reuters. The Turkish-backed fighters dispersed afterwards, the official said.

US Vice President Mike Pence will meet Erdogan on Thursday in Ankara.

“Vice President Pence will reiterate President Trump’s commitment to maintain punishing economic sanctions on Turkey until a resolution is reached,” the White House said in a statement.

After Trump announced sanctions to punish Ankara, US prosecutors hit Turkey with charges on the majority state-owned Halkbank for taking part in a multibillion-dollar scheme to evade US sanctions against Iran.

A Turkish embassy official in Washington said the indictment did not contribute positively to current US-Turkey ties. Turkish and American officials were in talks on the Halkbank case for at least a year.

MORE US SANCTIONS PRESSURE

A senior Trump administration official said Washington would threaten more sanctions to persuade Turkey to reach a ceasefire and halt its offensive.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a loyal Trump supporter critical of the troop withdrawal, said he would introduce a bill to impose tougher sanctions on Turkey.

The measures announced on Monday – mainly a hike in steel tariffs and a pause in trade talks – are less robust than financial markets anticipated and Trump critics derided them as too feeble to have an impact.

The Turkish lira, which fell on the expectation of tougher US measures, recovered after the sanctions were announced, as did its bond and stock markets, with traders noting Trump spared Turkish banks.

Bilateral trade between Turkey and the United States is relatively small – around a tenth the size of Turkey’s trade with Europe. Washington’s most effective form of economic leverage would be to hinder Turkey’s access to US financial markets, a step Trump has so far avoided.

In a potentially more damaging blow, German carmaker Volkswagen postponed a decision on whether to build a billion euro ($1.1 billion) plant in Turkey, citing concern over “current developments”.

Following Trump’s announcement, the US Treasury said it sanctioned Turkey’s energy, defence and interior ministers.

ACCUSATIONS OF BETRAYAL

Trump defended his reversal of US policy as part of a plan to extricate the country from “endless” wars in the Middle East.

Critics cast it as a betrayal of the Kurds, loyal allies who lost thousands of fighters as the principal ground force in Washington’s battle against Islamic State.

A senior US defence official said the US military would continue fighting Islamic State militants, who experts say could take advantage of the chaos to stage a resurgence.

“The intent is to reposition and use what assets and personnel we have available to continue the mission,” the official said.

Without a partnership on the ground in Syria, any US efforts would be limited. The Kurdish YPG militia, the key component of the forces who fought Islamic State, is seen by Ankara as a terrorist group aligned with Kurdish separatist insurgents in Turkey.

Turkey aims to defeat the YPG and create a “safe zone” where millions of Syrian war refugees in Turkey could be resettled.

The United Nations says 160 000 people fled their homes as Turkish forces advance. The regional Kurdish administration puts the number displaced at 270 000.

The UN Security Council will likely meet on Wednesday to discuss developments in Syria, diplomats said, the second such session since Turkey began its offensive.

The UN Human Rights office said Turkey could be held responsible for war crimes by fighters under its direction, potentially including the assassination of Hevrin Khalaf, a leading Kurdish politician killed on Saturday by gunmen who posted the attack on the internet.

Turkish-backed fighters denied blame for her murder.



“The international community missed its opportunity to prevent the Syrian crisis from pulling an entire region into a maelstrom of instability,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “The European Union – and the world – should support what Turkey is trying to do.”