Erdogan says Turkey to resume Syria offensive if truce deal falters

The truce also aimed to ease a crisis triggered by President Donald Trump's abrupt decision earlier this month to withdraw all 1,000 U.S. troops from northern Syria

A fire is seen in the Syrian town of Ras al-Ain as seen from the Turkish border town of Ceylanpinar, Sanliurfa province, Turkey, October 17, 2019 (photo credit: REUTERS/STOYAN NENOV)
A fire is seen in the Syrian town of Ras al-Ain as seen from the Turkish border town of Ceylanpinar, Sanliurfa province, Turkey, October 17, 2019
(photo credit: REUTERS/STOYAN NENOV)
President Tayyip Erdogan said on Saturday Turkey would press on with its offensive into northeastern Syria and "crush the heads of terrorists" if a deal with Washington on the withdrawal of Kurdish fighters from the area was not fully implemented.
Erdogan agreed on Thursday in talks with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence a five-day pause in the offensive to allow time for the Kurdish fighters to withdraw from a "safe zone" Turkey aims to establish in northeast Syria near the Turkish border.
On Saturday the fragile truce was holding along the border, with just a few Turkish military vehicles crossing the border, Reuters journalists at the scene said. In the last 36 hours, there have been 14 "provocative attacks" from Syria, Turkey's defense ministry said, adding it was continuing to coordinate closely with Washington on implementation of the accord.
If the agreement with the United States, a NATO ally, for the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia to withdraw falters, Turkey will continue its military operation from where it left off, Erdogan said.
"If it works, it works. If not, we will continue to crush the heads of the terrorists the minute the 120 hours (of the ceasefire) are over," Erdogan told flag-waving supporters in the central Turkish province of Kayseri.
"If the promises that were made to us are not kept, we will not wait like we did before and we will continue the operation where it left off once the time we set has run out," he said.
Ankara regards the YPG, the main component of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), as a terrorist group because of its links to Kurdish insurgents in southeast Turkey.
On Friday, the Kurdish militia accused Turkey of violating the five-day pause by shelling civilian areas in the northeast and the border town of Ras al Ain.
A senior Turkish official called the accusations an attempt to sabotage the agreement between Ankara and Washington, adding that Turkey was fully behind the deal.
"Turkey is 100% behind the deal. We already got everything we wanted at the negotiating table," the official said. "It's bizarre to think that we'd violate an agreement that we like," the official added.
The surprise deal to suspend Turkey's military offensive in Syria hinged on Erdogan's demand that Washington agree on a time limit on any ceasefire, a senior Turkish official told Reuters on Friday.
The deal aims to stem a humanitarian crisis, which displaced 200,000 civilians in the region, and ease a security scare over thousands of Islamic State captives guarded by the YPG, who the Turkish assault targets.
The planned safe zone would go 32 km (20 miles) into Syria. Erdogan said on Friday it would run for some 440 km from west to east along the border, though the U.S. special envoy for Syria said the accord covered a smaller area where Turkish forces and their Syrian rebel allies were fighting.
Erdogan also said on Friday Turkey would set up a dozen observation posts across northeast Syria, and that he would hold talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on what steps to take in the planned "safe zone" next week.
The truce also aimed to ease a crisis triggered by President Donald Trump's abrupt decision earlier this month to withdraw all 1,000 U.S. troops from northern Syria, a move criticized in Washington and elsewhere as a betrayal of loyal Kurdish allies who had fought for years alongside U.S. troops against Islamic State.
Trump defended his decision as "strategically brilliant" and said the truce reached with Turkey would save millions of lives. Trump later said he held a phone call with Erdogan and that the Turkish leader "very much wants the ceasefire, or pause, to work."
US politicians on both sides of the aisle, however, continued to harshly criticize his policy regarding Turkey and the Kurds, as a move that was a concession to Erdogan that weakened US foreign relations.
Republican Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post against the US pull out of troops from northeast Syria.
“The recently announced pullout risks repeating the Obama administration’s reckless withdrawal from Iraq, which facilitated the rise of the Islamic State in the first place,” he wrote.
“The combination of a U.S. pullback and the escalating Turkish-Kurdish hostilities is creating a strategic nightmare for our country,”
The situation, he said, “will leave the American people and homeland less safe, embolden our enemies, and weaken important alliances.”
As U.S. lawmakers from both parties press forward to penalize Turkey for its recent assault on Syria, the top Republican in the House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy, said it is more appropriate for them to pause so that fellow Republican President Donald Trump and his administration can take the lead.
"I think it would be appropriate to let them continue to do that work especially based upon the success of the president and the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, with their work in Turkey and I would take direction from that," he said at a press briefing on Friday. "I think I would take a pause right now and I would let them do the work."
Republican and Democratic U.S. lawmakers said on Thursday they would keep up their push for tougher sanctions on Turkey over its offensive in Syria despite the announcement of a five-day ceasefire.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen announced legislation that would impose "crippling" sanctions on the government in Ankara shortly before U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey had agreed to a pause to let Kurdish forces withdraw from a "safe zone."
The bill would target Turkish officials, end U.S. military cooperation with the NATO ally and mandate sanctions over Turkey's purchase of a Russian S-400 missile defense system.
Trump's move also means the extent of Turkey's ambitions in the region is likely to be determined by Russia and Iran, who both support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and look to fill the vacuum created by the U.S. retreat.
Assad has already deployed his forces in territory formerly protected by Washington, invited by the Kurds. Erdogan, who has backed rebels fighting to oust Assad, has said Turkey has no problem with Syrian government forces deploying near the border.
But Erdogan said on Saturday he would discuss the Syrian deployment in northern Syria in his planned talks with Putin during a visit to Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi on Tuesday.
"In certain parts of our operation area, (Assad) regime forces under Russian protection are situated. We will discuss this issue with Mr Putin. We need to find a solution," Erdogan said.
"But the same is valid there too. If it works, it works. If not, then we will continue to implement our own plans," he said, without elaborating.
While Erdogan and Putin have forged close ties over defense and energy cooperation, as well as efforts to find a political solution in Syria, Moscow has said the Turkish offensive into Syria was "unacceptable" and should be limited.
On Friday, Russian officials discussed with Assad in Damascus the need to de-escalate the situation in northeast Syria, Russia's foreign ministry said on Saturday.
Russia does not rule out reaching a new contract to supply its air defense missile systems to Turkey, Interfax news agency cited Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov as saying on Saturday.
Borisov also did not rule out Turkey expressing an interest in purchasing Russian SU-35 and SU-57 aircraft, it added.
France's president on Friday decried NATO's inability to react to what he called Turkey's "crazy" offensive into northern Syria and said it was time Europe stopped acting like a junior ally when it came to the Middle East.
 Trump pull out of American troops caught NATO's strongest European powers - France, Germany and Britain - by surprise.
It left them incensed, fearing the fighting would cause a security vacuum in which Islamist militants would escape Kurdish prisons and pose new danger, undoing a Western-led coalition's success in dismantling Islamic State's territorial "caliphate."
The Turkish assault also left European Union powers scrambling to form a coherent response beyond refusing to pay Turkey to contain any new refugee crisis on Europe's doorstep.
"I consider what's happened in the last few days (in northern Syria) to be a serious mistake by the West and NATO in the region," French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters after a European Council summit in Brussels.
"It weakens our credibility in finding partners on the ground who will be by our side and who think they will be protected in the long term. So that raises questions about how NATO functions."
Macron and French government officials have in the last week warned that the 28-nation European Union risks falling into irrelevance on foreign policy unless it finds a stronger and more coherent way to respond to what they see as unpredictable allies such as U.S. President Donald Trump's administration.
Discovering through Twitter that the United States was pulling its troops out of northern Syria, which forced France to also withdraw its special forces, made it seem as if Europe was an inconsequential junior ally in the Middle East, Macron said.
"I thought we were in NATO. I thought that the United States and Turkey were in NATO, and then I discovered by tweet that the U.S. had decided to withdraw its troops and pave the way (for Turkey's offensive) in the area," he said. "Like everyone else, I realized that another NATO power had decided to attack partners of the coalition fighting Islamic State."
Macron said it was time for himself, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to act and said they would meet Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in the coming weeks, most likely in London.
"It's important to meet and coordinate between the three Europeans and Turkey," Macron said. "We need to see where Turkey is going and how to bring it back to a reasonable position."
How much the Europeans can actually do to change the dynamics in northern Syria remains to be seen given the balance of power in the region has shifted away from the West.
"The reality I see today is that in the region those who have come out as the winners by imposing their strength are Turkey, Russia and Iran. I'm not sure that was the best strategic thing to happen for Europe and the United States," Macron said.
"It's crazy to do what the Turks are in the process of doing."
Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.