Despite earlier reports to the contrary, Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are expected to meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday to discuss the situation in Syria, according to a spokesman for the Turkish presidency.
But a challenging trip was made even more tricky when Trump appeared to undermine its purpose in remarks at the White House on Wednesday, saying that the US “shouldn’t be losing lives” because “it’s not our border.”
Trump directed the high-profile delegation that includes Pence, Pompeo and national security adviser Robert O’Brien to broker a ceasefire with Ankara amid the Turkish incursion into Syria.
Turkish presidential director of communications Fahrettin Altun said in a tweet on Wednesday, “Earlier today, the President told @SkyNews that he won’t receive a U.S. delegation that is visiting Ankara today. He does plan to meet the U.S. delegation led by @VP tomorrow.”
Altun also published a video of Erdogan saying, “At this time, It is out of the question for me to meet anyone except Pence and Pompeo.”
Responding to Trump’s Wednesday remarks, Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and fierce defender of the President, tweeted that the comments “undercut” Pence and Pompeo’s “ability to end the conflict.”
Earlier Wednesday, Pompeo voiced optimism about the prospects of a deal to halt the ongoing Turkish military operation.
“I’m very hopeful we can get a good resolution when the Vice President and I travel later today and are on the ground there maybe 24 hours from now,” Pompeo said during an appearance on Fox Business.
Turkey’s military offensive began last week after Trump announced his decision to pull troops out of northeastern Syria. The pullback is widely seen as giving Erdogan room to act on his long-held goal of attacking the Kurds who fought for and with the US against ISIS. In his interview Wednesday, Pompeo sought to deflect blame to the Turkish President,” while at the same time attempting downplay the impact that pulling US forces from northern Syria would have a broader security.
“No one disputes that the decision by the President of Turkey has created enormous risk in the region. That’s absolutely true. It’s precisely the reason we’re headed there today, to try to take down that set of risks,” Pompeo said.
Pompeo said that during a phone call on Tuesday with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, the official committed to not moving Turkish forces into Kobani — a commitment that Erdogan has made as well.
However, when asked if he was prepared to hold Erdogan personally responsible for failing to honor that commitment or for Turkey’s recent actions, Pompeo refused to say, instead pointing to recent sanctions and reiterating that the US wants to maintain its relationship with Turkey.
“We hope they’ll honor that. This is a big city with a large civilian population, multi-ethnic civilian population,” Pompeo said. “It would not be useful for Turkey, it would not be a good thing for the world or the region. It’s one of the things that we’re traveling today to talk to President Erdogan about. We need them to stand down. We need a ceasefire, at which point we can begin to put this all back together again.”
Asked about Erdogan’s culpability for reneging on his commitments, Pompeo deflected.
“Well we have to remember this is a complex situation,” he said. “You saw the initial set of sanctions that the President chose to put on Turkey. I think frankly the world has underappreciated the severity of those sanctions and how much impact they will ultimately have on the Turkish economy.”
“But our goal here, remember our goal here, isn’t to break the relationship with Turkey. They’re a member of NATO. We have important security interests connected to Turkey. Our goal isn’t to break the relationship, it’s to deny Turkey the capacity to continue to engage in this behavior,” he said.
On Tuesday, Erdogan dismissed Trump’s calls for a ceasefire in Syria, and said that he’s not worried about American-imposed sanctions, or the advancement of Russian-backed Syrian forces toward the Turkish border. Trump had said on Monday that hat he is prepared to “swiftly destroy” Turkey’s economy with sanctions if it continues its attack against the Kurds.