Trump and Erdogan Prepare to Meet As Vicious Fighting in Syria Flouts President's 'Permanent' Ceasefire

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will meet with President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C., later today, as both men seek to soothe fraught bilateral ties.

Relations were thrown into turmoil by Turkey's invasion of northeastern Syria last month, facilitated by Trump's abrupt withdrawal of U.S. troops in the region. The move was widely condemned at home and abroad, with the president accused of abandoning America's Kurdish-led allies, considered terrorists by Ankara.

Fighting is still going on in the area, despite Trump's claim of a "permanent" ceasefire. As such, this is "a particularly inappropriate time" for a visit, according to House Foreign Affairs Chairman Rep. Eliot Engel, who along with 15 House Democrats and two Republicans sent a letter to Trump Tuesday asking him to call off the meeting.

Erdogan said Tuesday that the Syria question would be at the core of the two presidents' meeting, according to the Turkish Hürriyet newspaper. Fighting continues despite a Turkish-Russian plan to end the violence. Meanwhile, a humanitarian crisis is unfolding with hundreds of thousands of people forced from their homes.

The crisis began on October 9 with Turkey's operation to clear the U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces—led by the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG)—from an 18-mile buffer zone along the border with SDF-held land, also known as Rojava.

Ankara considers the YPG an extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, which has been fighting an intermittent guerrilla war in Turkey since the 1980s and is a designated terror organization in both the U.S. and European Union.

Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin—who has been supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's efforts to reunify the war torn country under his rule—agreed that the SDF must vacate the area of operations. Joint Turkish-Russian patrols would then monitor to a depth of six miles from the border.

This came some time after Erdogan agreed with Vice President Mike Pence that Turkey would pause its invasion to allow the SDF to withdraw.

Trump took credit for what he called the "permanent" ceasefire and lauded a "great outcome," though in reality the entire debacle was a strategic disaster for the U.S.

But fighting—and alleged war crimes—has continued regardless. Clashes are still being reported by both sides around several key towns—particularly Tall Tamr which sits on the east-west M4 highway.

Syria, Turkey, Tank, SDF, fighting
Turkish soldiers are pictured at a position east of the Syrian town of Ras al-Ayn, as a tank fires on positions held by fighters from the Syrian Democratic Army on October 28, 2019. NAZEER AL-KHATIB/AFP via Getty Images/Getty

The road is a key strategic objective for the Turks and marks the extent of the incursion. Erdogan has described the M4 as a "terror corridor" because it is a vital supply route for the SDF.

Syrian regime troops have now also been dragged into the fighting. Abandoned by Trump, the SDF was forced to turn to Assad and his Russian backers for protection. The SDF has handed over control of hard-won cities and other strategic areas to the regime in exchange for support against the Turkish incursion.

Erdogan complained Tuesday that SDF forces are yet to vacate the Turkish buffer zone. "Neither Russia nor the United States has been able to clean [northern Syria] of terrorist organizations within the time they promised," he told reporters before setting off for Washington.

Nonetheless, the president said he hoped his trip would "improve our relations," despite "the fog" that has settled over it in recent months.

But Erdogan will be met by protesters in Washington. Jan Qertmini, the president of the American Rojava Center for Democracy, said in a statement that the ceasefire was "a total lie."

"Turkish bombs have dropped in our cities with hardly any interruption throughout the time frame of the ceasefire," Qertmini added. "We are protesting to stop Turkey's policies of genocide against the Kurds and the people of north and east Syria."