Mike Pence will arrive in Ankara on Thursday on a high-stakes mission to persuade Recep Tayyip Erdogan to halt Turkey’s military incursion into Syria and avoid becoming “the devil” in the words of Donald Trump.
The US vice-president will lead a delegation that includes Mike Pompeo, secretary of state, and Robert O’Brien, US national security adviser. They are trying to repair the damage critics say the US president caused when he appeared to give a green light to Ankara by removing American troops from north-east Syria, where US-backed Kurdish forces had been fighting Isis.
Critics from across the political spectrum condemned the president’s actions, accusing Mr Trump of abandoning the Kurds, who have lost 11,000 lives battling the terror group.
The US withdrawal has created a vacuum that was immediately filled by Moscow, with Russian troops recording videos from abandoned American bases. John Allen, a retired US Marine general who heads the Brookings Institution, a think-tank, called it a “policy catastrophe”.
“Turkey’s invasion effectively undid in 96 hours what had been accomplished in four years. Everyone told Trump not to do this,” Mr Allen said. “The Pence mission is an attempt to put a battle dressing on a massive self-inflicted wound. Erdogan and Putin are calling the shots.”
Elizabeth Dent, an Isis and Syria expert at the Middle East Institute think-tank, said: “The optic is that we are being forced out of Syria by a Nato ally, Russia and the [Syrian] regime.”
Mr Trump on Wednesday denied giving the Turkish president approval for the incursion in an October 6 phone call, adding that he had created a “strategically brilliant” outcome. The US president said that Turkey and Syria could argue or “fight it out” but that the conflict had “nothing to do with us”.
Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator and an ally of the president, lambasted Mr Trump for comments that “completely undercut” the ability of Mr Pence to negotiate a ceasefire.
Many experts were dubious that the vice-president’s delegation would secure a positive outcome in any case.
“I don’t think the US has a negotiating advantage at this point,” said Thad Troy, a former senior CIA officer with experience in Turkey now at Crumpton Group, a business intelligence company. “Erdogan has pulled the carpet out from under the US. It’s a fait accompli.”
The president on Wednesday defended his actions by referencing a letter to Mr Erdogan, in which he said he would become “the devil” if he chose the wrong path. But the letter was dated October 9 — three days after their call and on the first day of the invasion.
US officials said Mr Erdogan would invade regardless.
The US House of Representatives on Wednesday voted overwhelming to censure Mr Trump. Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader who rarely chastises the president, said it was a “mistake”. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the House, said Mr Trump was having a “meltdown” following a tense White House meeting.
Mr Trump has also created a problem for Nato, putting members of the transatlantic alliance in the middle of a controversy that some say has increased the chances that Isis could re-emerge.
“US military, from the most senior generals to special forces sergeants, are shocked and dismayed that we are abandoning our allies the Kurds, allowing Isis to have a chance at re-establishing itself and ceding the terrain to Russia and Iran,” said James Stavridis, a retired US admiral who served as Nato’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe.
Mr Erdogan lowered expectations about any deal ahead of the Pence delegation’s visit. “Mr President demanded that we declare ceasefire. We never will,” he said, adding that Turkey would “not negotiate with terrorists”, referring to the Kurdish forces.
Mr Trump also gave Mr Erdogan a propaganda victory on Wednesday when he said that the PKK — a Kurdish radical militant group in Turkey that is connected to the Kurds in Syria — was “more of terrorist threat . . . than Isis” and that they were “not angels”.
Rachel Ellehuus, a former Pentagon official at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the Pence delegation would struggle in Ankara. “It’s dead on arrival. We’ve already given away all of our leverage,” she said.
If Mr Erdogan refuses US demands, the White House has threatened tougher sanctions that could deal a crippling blow to the Turkish economy.
But for most experts, the Pence mission highlights the sense that this is self-inflicted mess by the US president.
“Never have so many senior US officials been sent on an urgent mission to resolve a crisis which underscores how catastrophic President Trump’s original mistake was,” said Tom Wright, a Brookings expert.