Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday agreed to meet with Vice President Mike Pence to discuss a cease-fire in Syria, abruptly shifting his position after earlier refusing and saying he would only negotiate with President Donald Trump.
In a statement tweeted by his communications director, Erdogan confirmed he plans to meet with Pence when the vice president arrives in Turkey on Wednesday afternoon with a high-level delegation, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and special envoy for the conflict James Jeffrey. The trip follows an announcement that the Trump administration intends to levy harsh sanctions against Turkey in response to its invasion into Syria.
It remains unclear why Erdogan changed his mind shortly after saying he would only negotiate with the U.S. leader, who is not scheduled to be on the trip.
“When Trump comes here, I’ll talk to him,” Erdogan said earlier, adding that Pence and Pompeo would speak with their counterparts on Thursday and not directly with him.
Erdogan’s comments to Sky News represented a troubling escalation in Turkey’s week-old invasion into Syria to attack Kurdish forces who had been key U.S. allies in the ground war against the Islamic State group. Trump announced last week he would pull U.S. troops out of the region, leaving the Kurdish troops, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, on their own.
The Turkish leader also said that any plans to make peace with the Kurds, who his country considers to be terrorists, are out of the question.
“Declare a cease-fire, they say. We will never declare a cease-fire,” Erdogan told reporters traveling with him after a trip to Azerbaijan on Tuesday. “We do not sit at the table with terrorist organizations.”
Trump’s actions have drawn widespread condemnation, including from many who say the crisis is of his own making. Administration officials push back against these charges, saying the U.S. could have done nothing to alter Turkey’s intent to invade Syria and target the Kurds.
Erdogan has said Turkey will create a “safe zone” to secure its border with Syria and vowed this week to continue with that plan. In the aftermath of clearing the region of Islamic State group strongholds, the U.S. military forged a tenuous but seemingly functional agreement to conduct joint patrols with Turkey along the border and to oversee the systematic dismantling of SDF posts in the region.
Senior defense officials were touting the arrangement hours before the White House suddenly announced the troop withdrawal. Reports followed that Trump had not consulted his top military advisers before making the decision.
Some analysts believe Erdogan’s incursion has as much to do with confronting the Kurdish groups as it does distract his domestic audience from negative attention he’s faced in recent weeks, including a perception he’s mismanaged the economy as well as from opposition forming within his own party.
The impasse between the U.S. and Turkey has wide-ranging consequences beyond cooperation in Syria to stabilize a complex and violent situation. The incirlik airbase in Turkey is a key node for U.S. military operations in the region and is reportedly home to dozens of American nuclear weapons. A U.S. official to The New York Times those weapons are “hostages” to Turkey now.