Turkey's leader rebuffs US call for Syria cease-fire, says he'll meet Pence, not just Trump

Deirdre Shesgreen and Kim Hjelmgaard, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON – Underscoring the fast-moving diplomacy around the White House's attempt to get Turkey to call a cease-fire in Syria, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan abruptly reversed course Wednesday and said he will meet Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo when they arrive in Turkey on Thursday.

Earlier, Erdogan ruled out the meeting and said he'd only meet with President Donald Trump. Trump is not traveling to Turkey. 

Pence and Pompeo leave for Ankara on Wednesday afternoon. News of Erdogan's refusal to meet with them was first reported by Sky News, a British broadcaster.

Erdogan subsequently confirmed he would meet with the senior American officials in a brief statement to Turkish media that was tweeted out by his communications director.

It wasn't immediately clear why he changed his mind. 

"We have every expectation that we will meet with President Erdogan," Pompeo said Wednesday in an interview with Fox News. "We need them to stand down, we need a cease-fire, at which point we can begin to put this all back together again."

But, later Wednesday Trump seemed to call into question his own administration's efforts. 

“It’s not our problem,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office, hours before Pence and Pompeo are set to depart for Turkey.

More: House votes to condemn President Trump’s troop pullout from Syria

In a phone call on Monday, Erdogan rejected Trump's request to call a halt to Turkish military operations in northeastern Syria. Turkey's leader said he will not negotiate with Kurdish forces that his government is trying to push out of the area. 

"They say 'declare a cease-fire.' We will never declare a cease-fire," Erdogan told reporters on a flight back from Baku late on Tuesday where he attended a regional business summit in Azerbaijan's capital. 

In an address to Turkey's Parliament on Wednesday, Erdogan said that Turkey's military offensive would end if Syrian Kurdish fighters left a border area in northeast Syria, according to the country's official Anadolu news agency

The Trump administration is scrambling to contain the escalating domestic and international fallout from Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria, a move that paved the way for Turkey's assault on Syrian Kurdish fighters who it considers to be terrorists. U.S.-led coalition forces have for the last several years successfully partnered with Syrian Kurds to fight the Islamic State group. 

Who are the Kurds?: A Middle Eastern people with 'no friends but the mountains'

Lawmakers in Congress, back from a two-week recess, lashed out at Trump's decision and laid the groundwork for a legislative crackdown Wednesday on Turkey that would go beyond the White House's move to sanction Turkey over its military invasion. 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., derided Trump's sanctions on Turkey as a "wet noodle" and said she would push a bipartisan resolution rebuking the president's withdrawal, which she and others have portrayed as a betrayal of Kurdish fighters who helped the U.S. battle Islamic State terrorists in Syria. 

"The president gave the green light to Turkey to go in and commit this humanitarian disaster unto the Kurds, making us an untrustworthy ally," Pelosi told reporters Tuesday. "And then had a wet noodle for his sanctions, which just were not up to the task."

President Donald Trump speaking on the lawn of the White House.

Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, warned that "leaving the field now" would allow the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS, to make a comeback and create a vacuum in Syria for Iran and Russia to fill. 

But in his Oval Office remarks, Trump dismissed mounting criticism on Capitol Hill and from other allies in the region while further downplaying the alliance with the Kurds. Trump had complained last week that the Kurds had not fought with Allied powers in World War II. 

"They're not angels," Trump said Wednesday. "Go back and take a look." 

More: Trump says Turkey's invasion of Syria 'not our problem'

Also on Wednesday, more than 90 House Republicans introduced legislation that would require the president to impose far-reaching sanctions on Turkey.

The legislation, led by Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., seeks to ban U.S. military transactions with Turkey and would also slap economic penalties on Erdogan and other high-ranking members of his government.

“It’s very important that we make sure that we maintain America’s global engagement and that we consider the costs of inaction,” Cheney said Wednesday.

Cheney’s proposal mirrors a sanctions bill that Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., are crafting in the Senate.

And, the resolution in the House condemning Trump's decision to withdraw from Syria passed with overwhelming backing, in a rare bipartisan rebuke at a time when the president is trying to shore up GOP support to stave off impeachment. The House vote was 354-60 with every Democrat and more than two-thirds of the Republicans supporting the measure.

Over the last few years, Syria's Kurds have carved out a semi-autonomous state on territory that once belonged to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. While Syria's Kurds are considered to be some of the region's bravest and most able military fighters, they have recognized they are ultimately no match for Turkey's far larger and better equipped military. After Trump announced the U.S. troop withdrawal, Kurdish leaders entered into an agreement with Assad to try to stem Turkey's advance. Assad's forces, in turn, are backed by Russia's military, an alliance that has enabled him to slowly turn the tide of Syria's nearly decade-long civil war in his favor. 

As Russia has moved to fill the void left by the U.S. withdrawal from the conflict, French Foreign Minister Jean Yves Le Drian said in an interview on French television channel BFM Wednesday that France is now looking to Russia for help, given their "common interests" in defeating ISIS in Syria. France and a number of other countries have also banned weapons sales to Turkey. The U.S. is still selling arms to Turkey. 

In his Oval Office remarks, Trump who described his decision to withdraw troops from Syria as “strategically brilliant,” despite the bipartisan criticism, brushed aside reports that Russian troops have moved into the territory abandoned by the U.S.

“They’ve got a lot of sand over there,” Trump said. “There’s a lot of sand that they can play with.”

Trump invited Pelosi and McConnell, along with other congressional leaders, to the White House Wednesday afternoon for a meeting on the crisis. But, the top Democrats in Congress walked out on Trump and leading congressional Republicans.

American withdrawal: Russia takes over key U.S. outposts in Syria

Pompeo accused Erdogan of "creating enormous risk" in the region with his invasion. And he denied that Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. forces from the region allowed Turkey to move in. 

"He did not green light this invasion," Pompeo said on Fox, a remark echoed by Trump later in the day

"I was very, very closely involved when President Erdogan told, informed, notified us that he was prepared to move and that he was going to do so within hours," Pompeo also said.  "President Trump saw that there were American soldiers in the way ... The president made the right decision in the moment, to get American forces out of the way."

A senior Trump administration official declined to detail the U.S. delegation's schedule in Turkey, but said Pence and Pompeo would use the threat of additional U.S. sanctions as leverage to pressure Erdogan to stop his military's advance into northeastern Syria.

The Turkish leader has so far shrugged off the U.S. sanctions and signaled no interest in a cease-fire, partly because Russia's military presence makes it the de facto power broker in the conflict. Erdogan said the offensive would continue until Turkey achieves its aims completely, which is to create a "safe zone" between Turkey and Syria that acts as a buffer area to Syria's Kurds. The "safe zone" would also enable Turkey to resettle several million Syrian refugees currently living on its territory in volatile border areas.

"They are pressuring us to stop the operation. They are announcing sanctions. Our goal is clear. We are not worried about any sanctions," Erdogan said on his way back from Azerbaijan, according to comments first reported by the Reuters news agency.

What we know: Turkey's offensive in Syria

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump faces chaos, backlash on Syria as Turkey rebuffs ceasefire