Vice President Mike Pence told Fox News in an exclusive interview Thursday that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “knows President Trump says what he means what he says” about Trump’s threat to slap sanctions on Turkey if its military defies the terms of a cease-fire meant to halt Ankara’s offensive against Kurdish fighters in northern Syria.
The five-day cease-fire is meant to buy time for Kurdish-led forces to pull back from a so-called “safe zone” of an undefined size that will be controlled by the Turkish military. Turkey says it will commit to a permanent cease-fire once the Kurds are cleared from the safe zone, but is under no obligation to withdraw its troops. In addition, the deal gives Turkey relief from sanctions the administration had imposed and threatened to increase, meaning there will be no penalty for the operation.
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Fox News chief White House correspondent John Roberts noted to Pence that Trump had threatened to “ruin” Turkey’s economy in the days after the offensive was launched.
“Did he [the president] have the means to do it?” Roberts asked. “Because there are many analysts who said that the sanctions that he announced earlier this week wouldn’t do it.”
“John, we had an entire package of sanctions that the president was prepared to implement immediately if we had not been able to come to an agreement on a case-fire,” Pence said. “But the good news is that we did, and that’s because of the strong stand that President Trump took in the way that he engaged President Erdogan.”
Roberts also questioned whether Erdogan could be taken at his word, noting that while Turkey is a member of NATO, Erdogan “basically thumbed his nose at the United States.”
“The president warned him against going into Syria. He did,” Roberts added. “The president sent him a letter again, warning him not to go into Syria. He basically threw that in the trash. Can you trust this guy?”
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In response, Pence acknowledged the Trump administration was “grateful to our Kurdish allies that helped us defeat ISIS,” but added that Turkey “had very real issues of terrorism and ISIS and the PKK organization, a Kurdish terrorist group the United States recognized as a terrorist organization many years ago.”
“And so, while we did not support President Erdogan’s decision to use military force and cross into the border, the agreement today allows us to go from where we are today to really establish a buffer zone that will contribute to peace and stability in the region, that addresses Turkey’s needs, addresses the needs of our Kurdish allies, and it creates a framework where the United States and other nations around the world can contribute to improving the lives of people across this region” the vice president said.
Pence’s description of the PKK faintly echoed Trump’s Wednesday description of the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, as “probably worse at terror and more of a terrorist threat in many ways than ISIS.” PKK has waged a guerrilla campaign inside Turkey since the 1980s. Ankara has long argued that the Kurdish-led fighters in northern Syria are nothing more than an extension of that group.
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“But again, based on his [Erdogan’s] behavior and based on his actions, can you trust him?” Roberts asked again.
“I think we will take this agreement for what it is,” Pence replied, adding: “I think that President Trump and President Erdogan have the kind of relationship where President Erdogan knows President Trump says what he means, means what he says. And I think on the foundation of that kind of a candid and honest relationship, we can go forward together for a more peaceful region.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.