Threat by Trump draws response from Ankara telling Washington not to conflate Syrian Kurds with ‘terrorist groups’.
The United States has been “a highly unreliable partner” to Ankara as a result of inconsistencies in Washington’s Syria policy, as well as its approach to Turkey and “terrorist” groups, a senior Turkish official told Al Jazeera.
“The problems and misunderstandings between the US and Turkey are results of the confusion and cacophony between the actors at different levels of the US administration and institutions,” Yasin Aktay, who advises President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in his AK Party, said on Monday in an interview.
Turkish and US officials have been trading barbs over Washington’s support for Kurdish fighters in Syria and what will happen to the areas held by them in the north of the country after the planned US troop withdrawal.
Starting the long overdue pullout from Syria while hitting the little remaining ISIS territorial caliphate hard, and from many directions. Will attack again from existing nearby base if it reforms. Will devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds. Create 20 mile safe zone….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 13, 2019
Erdogan said last week the US administration is “seriously mistaken” in cooperating with Syrian Kurdish fighters, while President Donald Trump threatened on Sunday to “economically devastate” Turkey if it carries out a military offensive against the militia.
“We have said repeatedly we are not scared of and will not be intimidated by any threats,” Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters.
“Economic threats against Turkey will get nowhere.”
Trump announced the withdrawal of some 2,000 US troops from Syria last month, shocking many politicians in Washington as well as Western allies and Syrian Kurdish fighters who fought against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) alongside American troops.
According to Aktay, the US administration has been incoherent about the withdrawal process since Trump’s announcement as well as in its approach to different “terrorist groups”.
“Trump is stuck between US public opinion that widely questions the US presence in Syria and the wider Middle East, and politicians from his party and allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia who are against the withdrawal,” he said, adding Trump has shifted positions over the withdrawal various times over the last few weeks.
Trump’s decision to withdraw troops was initially expected to be carried out swiftly, but the timetable has become vague and some conditions were set in the weeks following his announcement, including the safety of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an anti-ISIL force led by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).
“Washington fights one terrorist group, Daesh, while backing another one, the YPG. Such inconsistencies in US policies decrease the country’s reputation as a global power,” Aktay said, using an alternative name for ISIL.
US-backed SDF’s assaults were part of multiple operations that have removed ISIL fighters from most parts of Syria and Iraq they had captured in 2014.
Ankara considers the YPG and its political wing, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), to be “terrorist groups” with ties to the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged war in Turkey since the 1980s.
Turkey has long condemned Washington for its military relationship with the YPG, and it seeks to take over militia-controlled areas east of the Euphrates River in Syria.
Ankara has launched two military operations in northern Syria over the last three years that targeted YPG and ISIL.
After Trump’s withdrawal announcement, France, Britain and local armed groups warned ISIL had not totally been defeated yet in Syria. The decision also prompted the resignation of US defence chief James Mattis.
Subsequently, US officials made clear the withdrawal would not happen quickly and would take place in an orderly manner, as the White House faced a backlash from members of Congress.
Aktay said the US ignores the threat the YPG poses to Turkey and keeps making the mistake of identifying the group with Syrian Kurds.
“The US officials keep talking to PYD and YPG as if these groups represent the Syrian Kurds. This is scandalous. There are other ethnicities in these groups and they are engaged in the terrorist activity regardless of their ethnicities,” he told Al Jazeera.
“As a NATO ally, the US supports and prefers to cooperate with a threat to another NATO ally, emerging as a highly unreliable partner,” he added.
Follow Umut Uras on Twitter: @Um_Uras