Days after appearing to acquiesce to a Turkish invasion of northern Syria aimed at routing Washington’s Kurdish allies, the White House is officially reversing course, calling instead for a cease-fire, imposing economic sanctions and dispatching Vice President Pence to Ankara.
In an executive order issued Monday, President Trump declared that Turkey’s offensive “undermines the campaign to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, endangers civilians, and further threatens to undermine the peace, security, and stability in the region …”
The order halts a $100 billion trade deal being hammered out between Ankara and Washington, raises tariffs on Turkish steel to 50% and imposes sanctions on senior Turkish officials and the country’s defense and energy ministries.
“I am fully prepared to swiftly destroy Turkey’s economy if Turkish leaders continue down this dangerous and destructive path,” the president said.
The U.S. would consider ramping up the sanctions unless Turkey “is willing to embrace a cease-fire, come to the negotiating table and end the violence,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
The order comes amid strong criticism from within the president’s own party over Washington’s perceived abandonment of its Kurdish allies in Northern Syria and reports of executions of Kurdish militia captured by Turkish forces on the battlefield.
It also occurs as lawmakers express concern over reports of civilians killed and displaced in the fighting and that Islamic State fighters captured in the years-long battle against the extremist group have managed to escape from detention amid the chaos.
Hundreds of U.S. troops were also preparing for a full withdrawal from northern Syria, a U.S. defense official told The Associated Press. The hasty exit was ordered by Trump over the weekend after it became clear that U.S. forces were in danger of being caught in a crossfire between Turkey and the Kurds. About 200 U.S. troops were expected to stay behind near the Jordanian border.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper declined to say how long the withdrawal would take, but said it would be done carefully so as not to leave any U.S. equipment behind, the AP reports. He said he would travel next week to Brussels to urge NATO to impose “diplomatic and economic measures” against fellow member Turkey for its “egregious” actions.
The European Union on Monday joined France and Germany in agreeing to halt weapons exports to Turkey. The EU condemned the military action in Syria, which it said “seriously undermines the stability and the security of the whole region.”
Meanwhile, Pence, speaking to reporters outside the White House on Monday, said he had been asked by the president to lead a delegation to Turkey “as quickly as possible.”
He is expected to be accompanied by national security adviser Robert O’Brien.
“We want an immediate ceasefire,” Pence said.
Despite a phone call last week between Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in which the White House acknowledged that Turkey would begin the offensive in northern Syria and that U.S. forces “will no longer be in the area,” the vice president reiterated the administration’s insistence that it did not approve the invasion.
“The United States of America did not give a green light to Turkey to invade Syria,” Pence said. “The president has been very clear on that point, and reiterated that to President Erdogan today. … President Trump pressed him very strongly in the telephone call today to immediately embrace a cease-fire.”
Turkey launched its attack in Syria last week to target members of the Syrian Democratic Forces, which it views as terrorists. The SDF have received weapons and training from the U.S. in their fight against ISIS and the Syrian government.
Even so, the Kurds on Sunday announced a deal with the Russian- and Iraninan-backed government of Syrian President Bashar Assad to back them against the Turkish onslaught.
Since then, Syrian regime troops have reportedly moved to the border region to meet Turkish forces, sparking fears of a wider regional conflict.
Trump on Monday took to Twitter to respond to critics of his recent decisions.
“Let Syria and Assad protect the Kurds and fight Turkey for their own land,” he wrote in one of a series of tweets on the subject.
“Anyone who wants to assist Syria in protecting the Kurds is good with me, whether it is Russia, China, or Napoleon Bonaparte. I hope they all do great, we are 7,000 miles away!” he wrote.
“I would much rather focus on our Southern Border which abuts and is part of the United States of America. And by the way, numbers are way down and the WALL is being built!” the president tweeted.