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Turkey's Erdogan says he will go to Washington despite backlash over Syria

After President Donald Trump lifted US sanctions on Turkey, Turkish president says there's 'no obstacle' to his planned visit
Turkey will set up 'observation post' northwest of Syrian town of Manbij, says Erdogan (Reuters/File photo)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed that he will visit Washington next month despite objections from US lawmakers seeking to rebuke Ankara over its offensive against Kurdish fighters in northern Syria.

In a live interview with Turkish media outlet TRT on Thursday, Erdogan said his planned trip to the White House will go ahead now that US President Donald Trump has lifted sanctions against Turkey.

"There's no obstacle for us to go to the US on November 13. For that reason, we'll go there. And we'll hopefully hold sincere talks as we did in the past. The atmosphere is positive," Erdogan said.

Turkey began its offensive in northern Syria earlier this month, after Trump withdrew US forces from the area, a move that effectively gave Ankara a greenlight for the incursion.

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In the face of mounting anger from activists and lawmakers who accused him of betraying America's Kurdish allies, Trump imposed sanctions on Turkey on 14 October over its Syria offensive.

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But on Wednesday, the Trump administration lifted the sanctions after Washington and Ankara reached a ceasefire agreement that the Turkish government would halt its offensive in exchange for the withdrawal of Kurdish fighters from areas along the Turkish-Syrian border.

Ankara has also agreed to a similar deal with Moscow, which backs the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus.

The US backed the Kurdish-led Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) in its fight against the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria.

But Turkey, which has battled separatist Kurdish militants on its own soil for decades, views the fighters as a threat to its national security.

'Observation' area

On Thursday, Erdogan said Turkey would establish an "observation" area northwest of Manbij to protect the city's Arab population from Kurdish fighters, whom he called "terrorists". 

Syrian forces entered the city of Manbij last week after an agreement was reached with Kurdish forces to allow pro-government troops return to some SDF-controlled areas to avert a Turkish assault.

Russian troops have been patrolling the area between where Turkish and Syrian forces are stationed near Manbij. 

'Manbij has a strategic location for us because [Arab] tribes there want us to come. I expressed this to Mr. Putin and he agreed with me'

- Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

The strategic town is located near the Euphrates River on a major highway linking Syria's economic hub of Aleppo to the country's oil-rich northeast.

The predominantly Kurdish SDF captured Manbij from IS militants in 2016, but the town's population is mostly Arab.

On Thursday, Erdogan said the Turkish observation post would oversee a 5km by 19km patch of land northwest of Manbij. 

He said the plan had the approval of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"Manbij has a strategic location for us because [Arab] tribes there want us to come. I expressed this to Mr. Putin and he agreed with me," the Turkish president said.

Erdogan also said he would not rule out entering the town of Kobane despite Washington's explicit objections.

He said while the US rejects the move, Russia is OK with a Turkish offensive on the Kurdish town that withstood a fierce IS attack in 2014.

Contentious visit

Meanwhile, Trump has faced a barrage of criticism in Washington for his Syria policy.

Members of his own Republican Party last week called for the US president to cancel his upcoming meeting with his Turkish counterpart over Ankara's incursion in Syria.

"Erdogan's attack on our Kurdish partners has served to liberate ISIS prisoners, bolster the Assad regime, and strengthen Russia," Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn wrote on Twitter last week.

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"His invitation to the White House should be revoked."

Trump had announced on 8 October, one day before Turkey started its offensive in Syria, that Erdogan would be coming to the White House as his "guest".

Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen also urged the president last week to "publicly revoke" the invitation.

Senators from both major parties have said they intend to push ahead with a bill that would impose heavy sanctions on Turkey for the incursion. 

On Tuesday, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also introduced a resolution denouncing the US troop drawdown.

During Thursday's interview, Erdogan criticised Western powers, including the US, for supporting Kurdish fighters.

The Turkish president added that he will formally call on the United States to hand over top SDF general Mazloum Kobani, whom Trump has repeatedly praised over the past two weeks.  

"Mazloum is a terrorist sought with a red notice. What does this mean? ... The United States needs to hand over this man to us because he is wanted with a red notice," Erdogan said in a broadcast interview.

"I told my justice minister today. They will do necessary paperwork for request."

Erdogan also dismissed accusations that Turkey aims to harm the Kurdish civilian population in Syria.

"We have nothing against Kurds. Kurds are our brothers and sisters. We have no issue with them, but our problem is with the terrorists," he said.

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