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Thu. 9:41 a.m.: US delegation arrives for meeting with Turkey’s president

Vice President Mike Pence, left, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo leave the Ambassador’s Residence today as they walk to a motorcade en route to the Presidential Palace for talks on the Kurds and Syria in Ankara, Turkey. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — A senior U.S. delegation arrived today for meetings with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on an improbable mission to push for a cease-fire in Northern Syria.

Armored SUVs carrying Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien entered the vast Turkish presidency complex in Ankara to meet with Erdogan.

The White House said Pence was greeted by his Turkish counterpart before entering a one-on-one meeting with Erdogan. A second meeting with the full delegations was to take place later today.

The U.S. officials are expected to warn Erdogan that he will face additional economic sanctions if he doesn’t halt his assault on Kurdish forces once allied with the U.S. in the fight against the Islamic State group.

Turkey’s state-run news agency says a top aide of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has met Russia’s envoy for Syria, Aleksander Lavrentiev in Ankara. Anadolu Agency reported that Lavrentiev met with Ibrahim Kalin to discuss Turkey’s ongoing incursion as well as the situation in Syria’s northern Idlib Province.

The two agreed on the need for continued Russian-Turkish cooperation to prevent the threat that “all terror organizations” pose to Syria’s territorial integrity, the agency reported.

Erdogan is scheduled to meet with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia to discuss the military operation.

•The Kremlin says Putin will discuss humanitarian problems. Putin expressed his concern over the “possible humanitarian consequences of this operation” during a recent telephone call with Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said today that the toll of Turkey’s operation, now in its ninth day, “will be a very important theme on the agenda of the talks.” The two leaders are set to meet Tuesday.

Peskov also said he was surprised by the harsh tone used in by U.S. President Donald Trump in a recent letter to Erdogan, warning the Turkish leader not to be a “tough guy.”

The Russian spokesman said: “Such language is not often encountered in communication of state leaders. It’s a pretty unusual letter.”

Iraq’s foreign minister says his country will only take back Iraqi citizens detained in Syria who were fighters with the Islamic State group and their families.

Today’s comments by Mohammed Ali-Hakim said that the home countries of other former IS members and their families should take the necessary measures.

His remarks followed a meeting with his French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian in Baghdad, and come amid worries about the fate of thousands of IS members held by Kurdish fighters in Syria.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has again called on Turkey to stop its military offensive in Syria.

Merkel said in a speech today in parliament that the offensive “makes tens of thousands, among them thousands of children, flee.”

She’s calling the military operation “a humanitarian drama with big geopolitical consequences.”

She says it strengthens the role of Russia and Iran in the region and says the consequences of that “cannot be judged today.”

Merkel says both the Middle East and Europe are being made to feel insecure because prisoners of the Islamic State extremist group are no longer being adequately guarded by Kurdish-led forces. Those forces are now diverting their attention to the Turkish invasion.

Merkel also reiterated that Germany will not deliver arms to Turkey.

President Donald Trump earlier had dismissed the very crisis he sent his aides on an emergency mission today to douse. The U.S. delegation’s visit came hours after Trump declared the U.S. has no stake in defending Kurdish fighters who died by the thousands as America’s partners against Islamic State extremists.

Trump suggested Wednesday that a Kurdish group was a greater terror threat than the Islamic State group, and he welcomed the efforts of Russia and the Assad government to fill the void left after he ordered the removal of nearly all U.S. troops from Syria amid a Turkish assault on the Kurds.

“Syria may have some help with Russia, and that’s fine,” Trump said. “They’ve got a lot of sand over there. So, there’s a lot of sand that they can play with.”

He added: “Let them fight their own wars.”

The split-screen foreign policy moment proved difficult to reconcile and came during perhaps the darkest moment for the modern U.S.-Turkey relationship and a time of trial for Trump and his Republican Party allies. Severe condemnation of Trump’s failure to deter Erdogan’s assault on the Kurds, and his subsequent embrace of Turkish talking points about the former U.S. allies, sparked bipartisan outrage in the U.S. and calls for swift punishment for the NATO ally.

Republicans and Democrats in the House, bitterly divided over the Trump impeachment inquiry, banded together for an overwhelming 354-60 denunciation of the U.S. troop withdrawal. Many lawmakers expressed worry that the withdrawal may lead to revival of the Islamic State group as well as Russian presence and influence in the area, besides the slaughter of many Kurds.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., publicly broke with Trump to call the U.S. relationship with the Kurds “a great alliance.”

“I’m sorry that we are where we are. I hope the vice president and the secretary of state can somehow repair the damage,” McConnell said Wednesday.

Even among top administration officials, there were concerns that the trip lacked achievable goals and had been undermined by Trump even before it began. While Erdogan faces global condemnation for the invasion, he also sees renewed nationalistic fervor at home, and any pathway to de-escalation likely would need to delicately avoid embarrassing Erdogan domestically. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal thinking.

The White House disclosed that Trump had both cajoled and threatened Erdogan in an unusual letter last week, urging him to act only in “the right and humane way” in Syria. The letter was sent the day Erdogan launched the major offensive against the Kurds.

Trump started on a positive note by suggesting they “work out a good deal,” but then talked about crippling economic sanctions and concluded that the world “will look upon you forever as the devil if good things don’t happen. Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!”

Trump did place some sanctions on Turkey for the offensive. But he appeared to undercut his delegation’s negotiating stance, saying the U.S. has no business in the region — and not to worry about the Kurdish fighters.

“If Turkey goes onto Syria, that’s between Turkey and Syria, it’s not between Turkey and the United States,” Trump said during an Oval Office meeting with Italian President Sergio Mattarella.

As he seeks to push Erdogan to agree to a cease-fire, Pence will confront doubts about American credibility and his own, as an emissary of an inconsistent president.

“Given how erratic President Trump’s decision-making process and style has been, it’s just hard to imagine any country on the receiving end of another interlocutor really being confident that what Pence and Pompeo are delivering reflects Trump’s thinking at the moment or what it will be in the future,” said Jeffrey Prescott, the Obama administration’s senior director for Iran, Iraq, Syria and the Gulf states on the National Security Council and a former deputy national security adviser to former Vice President Joe Biden.

The withdrawal is the worst decision of Trump’s presidency, said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who meets often with the president and is one of his strongest and most important supporters in Congress.

“To those who think the Mideast doesn’t matter to America, remember 9/11 — we had that same attitude on 9/10/2001,” Graham said

Even before Trump’s comments, Erdogan had publicly stated that he will be undeterred by the sanctions and resisted calls for a cease-fire Wednesday, saying the fighting would end only if Kurdish fighters abandoned their weapons and retreated from positions near the Turkish border. If Pence can persuade Turkey to agree to a cease-fire, which few U.S. officials believed was likely, experts warn it will not erase the signal Trump’s action sent to American allies across the globe or the opening already being exploited by Russia in the region.

“Deterring an action that hasn’t yet been taken is almost always easier than trying to coerce someone to reverse an action that they’ve already committed blood, treasure and honor to,” said John Hannah, former national security adviser for former Vice President Dick Cheney and a senior counselor for Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

In public appearances, Trump said he was fulfilling a campaign promise to bring U.S. troops home from “endless wars” in the Middle East — casting aside criticism that a sudden U.S. withdrawal from Syria betrays the Kurdish fighters, stains U.S. credibility around the world and opens an important region to Russia.

“We have a situation where Turkey is taking land from Syria. Syria’s not happy about it. Let them work it out,” Trump said. “They have a problem at a border. It’s not our border. We shouldn’t be losing lives over it.”

Turkish troops and Turkish-backed Syrian fighters launched their offensive against Kurdish forces in northern Syria a week ago, two days after Trump suddenly announced he was withdrawing the U.S. from the area. Erdogan has said he wants to create a “safe zone” 30 kilometers (20 miles) deep in Syria.

Ankara has long argued the Kurdish fighters are nothing more than an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which has waged a guerrilla campaign inside Turkey since the 1980s and which Turkey, as well as the U.S. and European Union, designate as a terrorist organization.