Pence, Pompeo to visit Ankara as Russian forces move into northeast Syria, with US departure

Vice President Mike Pence, along with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, are leading a delegation to Ankara that will meet on Thursday with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – Vice President Mike Pence, along with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, are leading a delegation to Ankara that will meet on Thursday with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the White House announced on Tuesday.

As Pence explained, the delegation will “call on Turkey to stop the invasion” of Syria, “enact an immediate ceasefire,” and “begin negotiations to restore peace and stability to the region.”

The US-sponsored negotiations would entail discussions, at least indirectly, between Ankara and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Amb. James Jeffrey, US Special Representative for Syria Engagement, who is accompanying Pence and Pompeo, has quietly been conducting indirect negotiations between Ankara and the SDF for a while.

On Monday, US President Donald Trump spoke – for the first time – with the SDF commander, Gen. Mazloum Kobani, in the process, according him enhanced legitimacy in US policymaking.

Read More: Trump speaks with Gen. Mazloum; calls for Syrian ceasefire; imposes sanctions on Turkey

However, Erdogan, speaking with reporters late on Tuesday, as he returned from a summit in Azerbaijan, essentially said he had rebuffed Trump’s requests, when the two leaders spoke on Monday, following Trump’s discussion with Mazloum.

Of course, that is not how US officials portrayed the discussion between Trump and Erdogan. Yet Erdogan claimed on Tuesday that he had told Trump he would not accept a ceasefire before Turkey had achieved its goals. Erdogan reaffirmed them as control over a corridor that is 32 kilometers wide on the Syrian side of the border, reaching from the Euphrates River to Iraq. He also rejected the idea of negotiations with the SDF.

Meanwhile, as the US withdraws from Syria, Russia is stepping into the vacuum, politically, as well as militarily. Late on Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan spoke. Following their discussion, the Kremlin issued a statement, saying Putin had invited Erdogan to Russia for “a working visit in the coming days” and “the invitation has been accepted.”

So, it appears that Erdogan will meet with Pence and Pompeo, and then travel to Russia to meet with Putin.

Putin is currently on a rare visit to the United Arab Emirates, his first since 2007. Russia’s Special Envoy on Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, is accompanying him, and Lavrentiev said in Abu Dhabi, “We didn’t agree with the Turks on any questions about their presence in Syria, and we don’t approve of their actions.”

He explained that under a 1998 agreement between Ankara and Damascus, known as the Adana pact, Turkish forces can move up to 10 kilometers into Syria to conduct counter-terrorism operations on a temporary basis.

“But it doesn’t give them the right to remain on Syrian territory permanently, and we are opposed to Turkish troops staying on Syrian territory permanently,” Lavrentiev said, as Reuters reported.

On the ground in Syria, both regime forces and their Russian supporters have moved into areas that US troops have evacuated.

In a deal Moscow brokered, the SDF invited Syrian forces into the strategically located city of Manbij to protect it against a Turkish assault.

As Turkish forces raced toward Manbij, a small Syrian unit arrived there first, securing the city for the Syrian regime. Moscow then announced that Russian military police had begun patrolling between the Syrian and Turkish forces to prevent armed clashes.

“No one is interested” in fighting between the two, Lavrentiev stated, as he affirmed that Russia “is not going to allow it.”

Thus, Turkey failed to secure Manbij, while the newly arrived Russian and Syrian forces have moved into the US base there, hastily abandoned only a short time before.

“Just like that, one superpower ceded influence to another, with little fanfare, as if territory was a thing to be handed off, like a suddenly vacant chair,” The Washington Post reported.

Further east, close on the Turkish border, lies the Kurdish city of Kobani. At the request of Gen. Mazloum, Trump had pressed Erdogan not to attack the city, and Erdogan had agreed.

However, on Tuesday, US forces in Kobani came under attack from Turkish forces or their proxy militia. That prompted Sen. Lindsey Graham (R, South Carolina) to tweet a warning, “If Turkey continues to move and take Kurdish areas around Kobani, I will take this as a breach of President Erdogan’s promise and a major escalation.”

So Turkey does not have Kobani either. And further east, fighting continues between Turkish forces and the SDF in the cities of Serekaniye (Ras al-Ain) and Tel Abyad.

In addition to the US and Russia, the European Union and China have also condemned the Turkish attack, while the US Congress is preparing new, tougher sanctions, and the UN Security Council is holding a closed-door meeting on Wednesday to discuss the situation.

“For Erdogan, things are not progressing as planned,” Dr. Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish parliamentarian and currently a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Kurdistan 24.

“He has faced much greater pushback” from around the world than he expected. He also “unintentionally boosted the global image and legitimacy of the SDF”—as illustrated by Trump’s telephone conversation with Mazloum.

And, finally, the Syrian regime and Russia “have filled the vacuum in northeast Syria much more swiftly than he expected,” blocking Turkey’s advance and increasing “Russian and Iranian hegemony in the region,” he said.

The main impulse behind Erdogan’s assault into Syria, in Erdemir’s view, was to bolster his flagging domestic support—just as many analysts suggest that Trump’s main motive in acceding was to boost his own position in advance of the 2020 elections, as it allows him to claim that he is ending the “endless wars” and bringing the troops home.

But, as Erdemir continued, Erdogan “is probably thinking now that the cost of consolidating his power at home” through a cross-border operation that would cause the public to rally around the flag “has been extremely high,” and “he must be regretting his miscalculations, as we speak.”

Editing by Karzan Sulaivany