Turkey grudgingly accepts Trump’s support for Syrian Kurds
Washington - Turkey has reluctantly accepted a decision by the United States to supply heavy weapons to Syrian Kurds for the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) but trouble could be brewing as the two countries stick to their conflicting agendas in the Syrian war.
After meeting with US President Donald Trump in the White House on May 16, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the Americans were sticking to their plan to deliver machine guns and mortars to the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia, in northern Syria.
Turkey says the YPG is the Syrian outfit of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a rebel group seen as a terrorist organisation by both Ankara and Washington. That connection means that the YPG is a terrorist group as well, Turkey argues.
Before his visit to Washington, Erdogan warned that US support for the Kurds would be unacceptable. However, following his White House meeting, the Turkish president conceded that he failed to convince Trump.
“We said, leave those terror organisations, let’s fight terror together,” Erdogan said after his meeting with Trump. “Unfortunately, they did not agree.”
A senior Western official with knowledge of the White House talks confirmed that Turkey accepted the US plan. “They said yes at the end,” the official said speaking on condition of anonymity.
The outcome is a boost for Trump’s plan to attack the city of Raqqa, the capital of the self-styled caliphate erected by ISIS in parts of Iraq and Syria. The United States plans to use a local force made up of tens of thousands of fighters and dominated by the YPG.
A decisive military defeat for ISIS is Trump’s main goal in Syria. Ankara is concerned that the Kurds could turn the US weapons on Turkey and expand their territory in northern Syria, with the aim of creating an independent Kurdish state.
“The United States has taken its decision concerning Raqqa,” Erdogan said. “We told them that we could not be with them on that.” The course taken by the Americans was wrong, he said, adding: “I think they will come knocking on our door when it comes to Syria.”
Erdogan insisted that his military would act without any consultation with the United States should the Syrian Kurds pose a threat to Ankara. The Turkish Air Force attacked Kurdish positions in northern Syria and Iraq in April, triggering criticism by Washington. Last year, Erdogan sent troops and tanks over the border into Syria to fight ISIS and stop the YPG’s advance west of the Euphrates River.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told the Turkish NTV news channel the Trump administration had promised Turkey that control over Raqqa would be handed to Sunni Arabs and not to the Kurds once ISIS was defeated there. “If allies give their word, they stick to it,” Cavusoglu said.
However, Turkey felt the need to act “with caution,” given the experience of other places in northern Syria where the YPG had increased its territory despite US assurances that the Kurds would withdraw after a battle.
Erdogan’s delegation also failed to make headway in Turkey’s extradition request for Fethullah Gulen, a Pennsylvania-based cleric who is accused by the Erdogan government of being the mastermind behind last year’s coup attempt. The Turkish president said there was a “different atmosphere” under the Trump administration in comparison to the government of Barack Obama, when Turkey’s request went nowhere. Still, there was no concrete result for Erdogan to take home.
Despite their differences, Trump and Erdogan praised the alliance between their countries. “We support Turkey in the first fight against terror and terror groups like ISIS and the PKK and ensure they have no safe quarter,” Trump said while alongside Erdogan after their meeting. The Turkish leader called Trump a “dear friend” and congratulated him on his “historic victory” in the presidential election last year.
Human rights activists criticised Trump for not mentioning the situation in Turkey, where a purge by Erdogan after last year’s coup attempt has seen more than 100,000 public sector workers fired, tens of thousands of suspected Gulen supporters jailed and 120 journalists imprisoned. “This should have been a chance to shine a spotlight on the repression in Turkey,” said Andrew Gardner, Turkey researcher for the rights group Amnesty International.
While Trump did not mention Turkey’s human rights record publicly, a brawl in front of the Turkish ambassador’s residence in Washington during Erdogan’s visit, in which Turkish presidential bodyguards were filmed kicking and hitting protesters, was seen as a reminder of a growing authoritarian trend in Turkey. US Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, accused Turkish authorities of “thuggish behaviour” and tweeted: “This is the United States of America. We do not do this here.” McCain told the MSNBC cable television that he would “throw the Turkish ambassador out” after the violence.
The Turkish Embassy blamed PKK supporters who had “began aggressively provoking Turkish-American citizens.” Pro-government media in Turkey said Erdogan’s bodyguards stepped in when the local police failed to contain the protesters.