Turkey rejects Trump’s threats amid conflicting U.S. signals over Syria offensive

ISTANBUL – Turkey’s vice president said Tuesday that his country would “not react to threats,” as it prepared to mount a military offensive against U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters in Syria, a day after President Donald Trump warned that he would destroy Turkey’s economy if the offensive did not meet with his approval. “When it comes to the security of Turkey, as always, our president emphasized Turkey will determine its own path,” the vice president, Fuat Oktay, said in a speech at a university in Ankara, the Turkish capital. He referred to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has vowed to create a “safe zone” in a lengthy swath of Syrian territory along Turkey’s border.Erdogan and other Turkish officials have suggested for days that the military operation could begin at any moment. Turkish troop convoys have headed to the border, and local media outlets have published details of what they say is the battle plan. Turkey’s Defense Ministry wrote Tuesday on Twitter that all its preparations for the operation were complete. But there was no sign yet that Turkish troops were moving forward, as the United Nations and aid agencies warned of potentially catastrophic humanitarian consequences, and as the Trump administration delivered confusing signals about how it views Turkey’s plans to attack a Syrian-Kurdish force that partnered with the U.S. military to fight the Islamic State militant group. In a White House statement on Sunday and tweets on Monday, Trump suggested that U.S. troops would step aside as Turkey conducted its military operation.”It is time for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home,” Trump tweeted. Dozens of U.S. troops were withdrawn from the “safe zone” early Monday. But after facing harsh criticism from some of his own allies that he was abandoning the Syrian Kurds, Trump appeared to have a change of heart by Monday afternoon. “If Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey,” he wrote, without specifying what was off limits. Syrian Kurdish officials, frozen in Turkey’s crosshairs, tried to seize on Washington’s political divisions. “We are humbled by the enormous support by American people and politicians despite @potus decision to pave the way for Turkish invasion, which caused despair among people,” Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the Syrian-Kurdish force, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), wrote Tuesday on Twitter. U.S. officials have denied that Trump endorsed a Turkish invasion. A senior administration official said Monday that Trump’s principal concern was the safety of U.S. troops operating in the area. “The president has made it very clear there should be no untoward action with respect to the Kurds or anyone else,” the official said. As allies and regional actors tried to unscramble Trump’s conflicting statements, Erdogan’s government has remained on message, insisting that the invasion is a certainty and that its target, the SDF, is an imminent threat to national security because of its ties to Kurdish militants in Turkey. The establishment of the safe zone “is essential for the stability and peace of our region and for Syrians to be reunited with a secure life,” the Turkish Defense Ministry said in a tweet on Tuesday. The ministry was alluding to Erdogan’s plan to resettle in Syria millions of Syrian refugees now residing in Turkey – a mass repatriation that the United Nations and refugee advocates have said might violate international law. Eric Schwartz, president of Refugees International, said in a statement Tuesday that Turkey’s proposed resettlement in the “safe zone” was “shockingly irresponsible.” And Ankara’s proposed invasion would likely create new refugees, he added. “It could displace hundreds of thousands of civilians in an area already in the grip of a humanitarian crisis,” Schwartz said. “A Turkish military operation into northeast Syria will likely force international relief groups to evacuate just when they are needed most.” Sabah, a Turkish newspaper that is close to Erdogan’s government, published a report Tuesday describing how the battle might unfold. It said Turkish armed forces would wait for the full withdrawal of U.S. troops before commencing any operation. Warplanes and howitzers would pound enemy positions, and then Turkish troops would enter Syria from several points along the border, east of the Euphrates River. The military would advance as far as 18 miles into Syrian territory, the report said, without naming its source. After the operation was completed, Turkey would “continue its humanitarian work to bring back locals in the area.” On Tuesday, a spokesman for a Turkish-backed Syrian rebel group, called the National Army, said its fighters were making preparations for the operation but had still received no orders to move.