AKCAKALE, Turkey (AP) — Russia said it was working to prevent a conflict between advancing Turkish and Syrian government forces on Wednesday, as Turkey's president defied growing pressure and sanctions from Western allies for a cease-fire in northern Syria.
Russia has moved quickly to further entrench its leadership role in the region after U.S. President Donald Trump ordered the pullout of American forces in northeastern Syria. The American move effectively abandoned the Kurdish fighters who were allied with the U.S. and cleared the way for Turkey's invasion aimed at crushing them.
America's abrupt reversal pushed the Kurds to strike a deal with the Russia-backed government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, inviting its forces to return to regions of northern Syria it had abandoned at the height of the eight-year-old civil war.
On Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Russia is committed to ensuring security in the region as it works to mediate between the Syrian government and Turkey.
Russia already announced that it had deployed troops to the flashpoint town of Manbij to keep apart advancing Syrian government and Turkish-led forces.
Moscow will also continue to encourage Syria's Kurds and government to seek rapprochement following the U.S. withdrawal, Lavrov said in remarks carried by Russian news agencies.
Lavrov also blamed the United States and Western nations for undermining the Syrian state, saying this pushed "the Kurds toward separatism and confrontation with Arab tribes."
During a visit to Iraq last week, Lavrov met with the leaders of the Kurdish autonomous region and said that Moscow is sympathetic to their need for autonomy.
Now in its eighth day, Turkey's offensive against Kurdish fighters has increasingly strained relations with its NATO allies.
Late on Tuesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed he would not accept a cease-fire in northern Syria, despite growing pressure from the U.S. and Europe.
Speaking to a group of journalists late Tuesday on his return from a trip to Azerbaijan, Erdogan said Turkey would only consider a ceasefire once it had cleared the border region of Kurdish fighters that it considers a threat for links to an insurgency within its own territory.
"It is not possible for us to declare a cease-fire until it is cleared," the pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper quoted Erdogan as saying.
Erdogan's comments came as Washington, which has announced limited sanctions on Turkey, said U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser Robert O'Brien are traveling to Ankara on Wednesday to try and negotiate a stop to the fighting in Syria's northeast.
Trump had announced on Monday new sanctions to try to pressure Turkey to accept a cease-fire.
But Erdogan told journalists that he had rejected U.S. offers to mediate. Referring to Syrian Kurdish fighters, he said: "We would never sit around (the negotiating) table with a terror organization."
He also said Turkey was "not concerned" by the sanctions.
On Tuesday, the Kremlin said Erdogan accepted an invitation to visit Russia in the "nearest days," without providing further details.
France has suggested it will also work more closely with Russia in Syria.
French Foreign Minister Jean Yves Le Drian said in an interview on French television channel BFM Wednesday that France is notably now looking to Russia, given their "common interests" in defeating the Islamic State group in Syria.
He called on European and other members of the coalition fighting the IS in Syria to regroup as the U.S. appeared to abdicate its leadership role in the region.
Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.