Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses his party at the Turkish National Assembly in Ankara, October 16 2019. Picture: ADEM ALTAN / AFP
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses his party at the Turkish National Assembly in Ankara, October 16 2019. Picture: ADEM ALTAN / AFP

Ceylanpinar — President Recep Tayyip Erdogan rebuffed international pressure to curb Turkey's  military offensive against Kurdish militants in Syria on Wednesday and attacked as “ugly” a decision by US prosecutors to file criminal charges against state-owned bank Halkbank.

 Erdogan vowed Turkey’s operation — which has been facilitated by the withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria — would continue.

The only way to solve Syria’s problems, Erdogan told parliament, was for the Kurdish forces to “lay down their arms,  destroy all their traps and get out of the safe zone that we have designated (in northern Syria)”.

Erdogan again insisted there would be no ceasefire, and said he might call off a visit to the US in November  because of the “very big disrespect” shown by US politicians.  

He lashed out at the “ugly” US criminal charges against Halkbank, and a senior minister said later Turkey would retaliate.

US prosecutors on Tuesday charged the state-owned lender with taking part in a multibillion-dollar scheme to evade US sanctions on Iran. In response, Halkbank’s shares plunged as much as 7% on Wednesday despite a new ban on short selling.

The indictment came a day after the US imposed sanctions on Turkish officials, hiked tariffs and halted trade talks in an effort to persuade Turkey to stop attacks against the Kurdish YPG militia in northeastern Syria. 

Clashes have continued across the region, with Kurdish fighters in the border town of Ras al-Ain burning tyres in a bid to blind Ankara’s fighter jets and digging in against a ground offensive by Turkish-backed Syrian rebels.

“We are fully prepared to wage battles,” an official from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said. “The real battle has yet to start.” Having struck a deal with Damascus over the weekend, Kurdish forces have joined with Syrian troops to take an abandoned US base between Kobani and Ain Issa, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The Turkish operation, now in its second week, has triggered a flurry of diplomacy among major powers.

Nato  allies

Trump sent Vice-President Mike  Pence along with his top diplomat secretary of state Mike Pompeo to Turkey amid the greatest crisis in relations for decades between the Nato  allies, with talks due in Ankara early Thursday.

Pence’s office said the US would pursue “punishing economic sanctions” unless there was “an immediate ceasefire”.

Turkey-backed Syrian fighters gather on the outskirts of the key Syrian border town of Ras al-Ain, October 16 2019. Picture: NAZEER al-KHATIB /AFP
Turkey-backed Syrian fighters gather on the outskirts of the key Syrian border town of Ras al-Ain, October 16 2019. Picture: NAZEER al-KHATIB /AFP

But Trump again dismissed the idea that pulling out 1,000 troops — practically the entire US contingent in the region — had been a betrayal of Kurdish militants who bore the brunt of the fight against the Islamic State group in recent years. “The Kurds are very well protected,” Trump said at the White House. “By the way, they are not angels.”

Moscow has stepped into the void left by the US withdrawal, deploying patrols to prevent clashes between Syrian and Turkish forces.

Russian TV showed its forces alongside Syrian government troops taking up positions in and around the town of Manbij.

The Kremlin said it would host Erdogan for a meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in the coming days, to ensure the operation does not turn into all-out war between Turkey and Syria.

The Turkish government can count on widespread support for its operation at home, where decades of bloody insurgency by Kurdish militants have killed tens of thousands of people.

But Western powers fear it will endanger the battle against the Islamic State group. Thousands of IS prisoners are held in Kurdish-run camps in the region.

Europe has taken an increasingly tough line with Turkey and several countries, including Britain, France and Germany, have imposed arms embargoes on Turkey over the operation.

The Kurdish-led SDF has mounted a desperate defence to the east of Ras al-Ain, using tunnels, berms and trenches.

A Syrian fighter serving alongside Ankara’s forces said his forces were trying to cut Kurdish supply lines from nearby Hassakeh to facilitate their advance on the town.

Since launching their assault on October 9, Turkey and its Syrian rebel proxies have secured more than 100km of border, but Ras al-Ain has held out.

Erdogan, who like Trump faces political difficulties at home, wants to create a buffer zone stretching 30km from the border into Syrian territory.

He wants to destroy Kurdish hopes of an autonomous enclave that could serve as a launching pad for attacks in Turkey, and to resettle some of the 3.6-million Syrian refugees Ankara is hosting.

Erdogan said that once the safe zone was established, “stretching from Manbij to the Iraqi border”, then the operation would have “ended on its own”. The offensive has left dozens of civilians dead, mostly on the Kurdish side, and displaced at least 160,000 people.

AFP