US demands Syria ceasefire but Turkey defiant

ANKARA (AFP) – United States (US) Vice President Mike Pence arrived in Turkey yesterday to push President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for a ceasefire in Syria after Ankara rebuffed international pressure to halt its deadly offensive against Kurdish forces.

But Erdogan vowed on Wednesday that Turkey’s operation – which has been facilitated by the withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria – would continue.

That came as an extraordinary letter from Trump emerged in which he warned Erdogan. Pence is accompanied by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other officials. Days after US troops abruptly began withdrawing, Turkish soldiers and their Syrian rebel proxies gained ground in Ras al-Ain.

Turkish forces and the mostly Arab and Turkmen former rebels they use as a ground force had “taken about half of the town” by yesterday morning, Head of the Britain-based war monitor Rami Abdel Rahman said.

The Observatory said more than 300,000 civilians were displaced within Syria since the start of the assault, and labelled it one of the largest upheavals since Syria’s civil war began in 2011. The monitor said nearly 500 people have been killed including dozens of civilians, the majority on the Kurdish side.

On Wednesday, Kurdish forces struck a desperate deal with Damascus and stepped aside to allow Syrian regime troops and allied Russian soldiers enter the border town of Kobane, according to the Observatory.

Kobane is a highly symbolic town for Syria’s Kurds, whose forces had in 2015 wrested it from the Islamic State (IS) group in an epic battle backed by the US-led coalition. The Turkish operation, now in its second week, has triggered a flurry of diplomacy among major powers.

Facing a barrage of criticism in Washington for abandoning the Kurds, Trump has imposed sanctions on three Turkish ministers and raised tariffs on its steel industry.

Pence’s office said the US would pursue “punishing economic sanctions” unless there was “an immediate ceasefire”.