WASHINGTON -- Targeting Turkey's economy, President Donald Trump announced sanctions Monday aimed at restraining the Turks' assault against Kurdish fighters and civilians in Syria -- an attack Turkey began after Trump announced he was moving U.S. troops out of the way.
The United States also called on Turkey to stop the invasion, and Trump is sending Vice President Mike Pence to the region in an attempt to begin negotiations. Pence said Trump spoke directly to Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
"President Trump communicated to him very clearly that the United States of America wants Turkey to stop the invasion, implement an immediate cease-fire and to begin to negotiate with Kurdish forces in Syria to bring an end to the violence," Pence said.
The withdrawal of U.S. troops in northern Syria was criticized at home and abroad as opening the door to a resurgence of the Islamic State, whose violent takeover of Syrian and Iraqi lands five years ago was the reason American forces went there in the first place.
Trump said the approximately 1,000 U.S. troops who had been partnering with local Kurdish fighters to battle Islamic State forces in northern Syria are leaving the country. They will remain in the Middle East, he said, to "monitor the situation" and to prevent a revival of the Islamic State -- a goal that even Trump's allies say has become much harder as a result of the U.S. pullout.
[Video not showing up above? Click here to watch » https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=so-u6ZV97uQ]
The Turks began attacks in Syria last week against the Syrian Kurdish fighters, whom the Turks see as terrorists. On Monday, Syrian government troops moved north toward the border region, setting up a potential clash with Turkish-led forces.
Trump said Turkey's invasion is "precipitating a humanitarian crisis and setting conditions for possible war crimes," a reference to reports of Turkish-backed fighters executing Kurdish fighters on the battlefield.
The Kurdish forces, previously allied with the U.S., said they had reached a deal with Syrian President Bashar Assad's government to help them fend off Turkey's invasion, a move that brings Russian forces deeper into the conflict.
On Monday, without a fight, Syrian government forces seized a number of towns that had recently been held by the United States' allies.
For the first time in years, Syrian troops arrived in the towns of Tabqa, on the outskirts of Raqqa, and Ain Issa, which served as the headquarters of the Kurdish-led autonomous administration in northeast Syria, about 20 miles from the Turkish border. Tabqa has a large hydroelectric dam on the Euphrates River, and Ain Issa is where the United States kept a contingent of forces until recently.
The troops also seized Tel Tamer, home to an Assyrian Christian community.
Images published by the official Syrian Arab News Agency showed government troops arriving atop pickups and waving Syrian flags.
Fighting continued in towns near the Turkish border to the north, pitting a number of forces against each other and terrifying civilians.
Kurdish militiamen battled Turkish troops around Ras al Ain and Tal Abyad, Syrian border towns the Turks claim to have taken. And both Turkey and the Syrian government were sending troops toward Manbij, raising the specter of new fighting there.
The military action by Ankara raises the specter of a resurgent Islamic State, since the Kurds will focus their attention on the Turkish advance.
Turkey's position is that the main Kurdish group in Syria is linked to an outlawed Kurdish group in Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers' Party. That group has waged a 35-year old conflict against the Turkish state that has left tens of thousands of people dead.
Turkey's U.N. Ambassador Feridun Sinirlioglu said in the letter to the Security Council dated Oct. 9 that its counterterrorism operation will be "proportionate, measured and responsible."
"The operation will target only terrorists and their hideouts, shelters, emplacements, weapons, vehicles and equipment," he said. "All precautions are taken to avoid collateral damage to the civilian population."
But U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Monday that at least 160,000 civilians have been newly displaced and that military action has already reportedly resulted in many civilian casualties.
Sinirlioglu said Syria's eight-year conflict "has created a breeding ground for various terrorist organizations, posing a wide range of threats to the region and beyond."
European foreign ministers who met Monday in Luxembourg condemned the Turkish incursion into Syria, and they agreed to limit arms sales to Ankara. Several of the main European arms producers, including France, Germany and Italy, have blocked sales to Ankara.
Some said they feared that the instability in northeast Syria as Kurdish authority collapses could give a new toehold to the Islamic State, which lost its final territories earlier this year.
The Islamic State "could re-find its breathing space inside that territory," EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said. "That worries us enormously. That is a direct security threat to the European Union."
In Germany, one leading policymaker said the United States had a "special responsibility" to the Kurds, who were a key partner in fighting the Islamic State.
"In withdrawing U.S. troops from Northern Syria, Trump not only let his Kurdish allies down, he also enabled the Turkish invasion in the first place," Norbert Rottgen, the chairman of the German parliament's foreign affairs committee, wrote in an email. "As a consequence, U.S. credibility has been badly damaged and the regional stability is now at serious risk."
In Washington, Trump responded Monday morning to his critics, writing on Twitter: "Europe had a chance to get their ISIS prisoners, but didn't want the cost. 'Let the USA pay,' they said."
He theorized that the "Kurds may be releasing some to get us involved," adding: "Easily recaptured by Turkey or European Nations from where many came, but they should move quickly."
Trump concluded: "Big sanctions on Turkey coming! Do people really think we should go to war with NATO Member Turkey? Never ending wars will end!"
In his sanctions announcement, Trump said he was halting trade negotiations with Turkey and raising steel tariffs. He said he would soon sign an order permitting sanctions to be imposed on current and former Turkish officials.
"I am fully prepared to swiftly destroy Turkey's economy if Turkish leaders continue down this dangerous and destructive path," Trump said.
American troops consolidated their positions in northern Syria on Monday and prepared to evacuate equipment in advance of a full withdrawal, a U.S. defense official said.
The official, who was not authorized to be quoted by name, said U.S. officials were weighing options for a potential future counter-Islamic State campaign, including the possibility of waging it with a combination of air power and special operations forces based outside of Syria, perhaps in Iraq.
The hurried preparations for a U.S. exit were triggered by Trump's decision Saturday to expand a limited troop pullout into a complete withdrawal.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Monday that he would travel to NATO headquarters in Brussels next week to urge European allies to impose "diplomatic and economic measures" against Turkey -- a fellow NATO ally -- for what Esper called Ankara's "egregious" actions.
Esper said Turkey's incursion had created unacceptable risk to U.S. forces in northern Syria and "we also are at risk of being engulfed in a broader conflict."
The only exception to the U.S. withdrawal from Syria is a group of perhaps 200 troops who will remain at a base called Tanf in southern Syria near the Jordanian border along the strategically important Baghdad-to-Damascus highway. Those troops work with Syrian opposition forces unrelated to the Kurdish-led fighters in northern Syria.
Esper said the U.S. withdrawal would be done carefully to protect the troops and to ensure that no U.S. equipment was left behind. He declined to say how long that might take.
In a series of tweets Monday, Trump defended his gamble that pulling U.S. forces out of Syria would not weaken U.S. security and credibility. He took sarcastic swipes at critics who say his Syria withdrawal amounts to a betrayal of the Kurds and plays into the hands of Russia.
"Anyone who wants to assist Syria in protecting the Kurds is good with me, whether it is Russia, China, or Napoleon Bonaparte," he wrote. "I hope they all do great, we are 7,000 miles away!"
Trump has dug in on his decision to pull out the troops, believing it fulfills a key campaign promise and will be a winning issue in the 2020 election, according to White House officials.
[RELATED: Ex-commander Wesley Clark decries Trump's Syria decision » https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2019/oct/15/ex-commander-decries-trump-s-syria-deci/]
This has effectively ended a five-year effort to partner with Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighters to ensure a lasting defeat of the Islamic State group. Hundreds of Islamic State supporters escaped a holding camp amid clashes between invading Turkish-led forces and Kurdish fighters, and analysts said an Islamic State resurgence seemed more likely, just months after Trump declared the extremists defeated.
The prospect of enhancing the Syrian government's position on the battlefield and inviting Russia to get more directly involved is seen by Trump's critics as a major mistake. But he tweeted that it shouldn't matter.
"Others may want to come in and fight for one side or the other," he wrote. "Let them!"
Information for this article was contributed by Robert Burns, Jonathan Lemire and Edith M. Lederer of The Associated Press; by Ben Hubbard and Eric Schmitt of The New York Times; and by Michael Birnbaum, Erin Cunningham, Sarah Dadouch, Asser Khatab, Dan Lamothe, Kareem Fahim, Louisa Loveluck, Quentin Aries and Karla Adam of The Washington Post.
Vice President Mike Pence, joined by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin (left) and national security adviser Robert O’Brien, speaks to reporters Monday during a briefing outside the West Wing of the White House. President Donald Trump is sending Pence to the Mideast in an attempt to begin negotiations to halt the Turkish invasion.
A Section on 10/15/2019