Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday denounced comments by a senior US official urging protection for Kurdish allies as “seriously mistaken”.
US National Security Adviser John Bolton held talks in Ankara with Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin and other officials on the handling of armed groups in northern Syria and the US’s planned pullout of its forces there.
A joint press briefing scheduled to take place was abruptly cancelled and Bolton was set to depart Turkey without meeting Erdogan in a likely snub over disagreements about Kurdish fighters.
During his visit to Israel on Sunday, Bolton set conditions for the US pullout from Syria that included Turkey guaranteeing the safety of the Kurdish militia that spearheaded the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group.
“We cannot accept the message Bolton gave from Israel, we cannot be deceived by it,” Erdogan said in a speech to his Justice and Development Party (AK Party) deputies.
US President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of some 2,000 US troops from Syria last month in a statement that shocked many politicians in Washington as well as Western and Kurdish allies who fought alongside the US in the war-torn country.
Turkey has long condemned Washington for its military relationship with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria.
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) in Turkey. However, the YPG has been Washington’s main ally in the war against ISIL in Syria for several years.
“The US apparently does not know them,” said Erdogan. “These terror organisations do not represent my Kurdish brothers. If the US sees these groups as [representatives of] my Kurdish brothers, they are seriously mistaken.”
Erdogan stressed he and Trump had reached a clear agreement in December over the swift withdrawal of the US forces from Syria, in return for Turkey taking care of the remaining ISIL threat in the war-torn country.
“I promised him to take all the necessary initiative elements over the issue. However, different levels of the US administration started saying different things after that.”
The Turkish leader also said his country had completed preparations for a new military operation in Syria.
Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Istanbul-based Centre for Economics and Foreign Policies Studies, said Erdogan’s statement reflects the disappointment in Ankara over Bolton’s comments on the planned US withdrawal and the future of the YPG.
“Since the conversation between Erdogan and Trump, Washington has shifted positions on the timetable for withdrawal and the conditions to do so, including the one over the YPG, the most important one for Turkey,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Trump seems to be convinced by people around him and agreed to these new positions for now. Therefore, further tensions might come up in near future between the two sides.”
Later on Tuesday, Kalin, echoing Erdogan’s statements, said Ankara had been irritated by statements coming from Washington that associated Syrian Kurds with PYD, YPG and PKK.
The presidential spokesman also said Ankara would not seek US permission to carry out military operations inside Syria and would not allow the US troop pullout to create a new opportunity for “terrorist” groups.
“We are happy with Trump’s decision to withdraw [from Syria]. However, it should be made clear what sort of a structure will be left behind, and what will happen to the US military bases and the weapons given [to the YPG],” he said.
Despite Erdogan’s negative comments, Garrett Marquis – a spokesman for the US National Security Council – said on Tuesday that Bolton and Kalin had a productive discussion regarding the US’s decision to withdraw from Syria and had identified further issues for dialogue.
In an op-ed article for The New York Times on Monday, Erdogan praised Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria. However, he added that the process must be carried out carefully and with the “right partners” to protect the interests of the US, the international community and the Syrian people.
Trump’s decision to withdraw troops was initially expected to be carried out swiftly, but the timetable became vague in the weeks following his announcement.
France, Britain and local armed groups warned that ISIL had not totally been defeated yet. The decision also prompted the resignation of American 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.
According to Ulgen, Turkey still holds a trump card in the negotiations over the US withdrawal process.
“If the US wants Turkey to have a bigger role in the fight against ISIL after the withdrawal, there has to be an environment in northern Syria that assures the Turkish military’s safety. And this can only be established through giving concessions to Turkey over the YPG,” he said.
“Washington cannot block Turkey over the YPG issue and ask Ankara to handle more burden in the fight against ISIL.”
Follow Umut Uras on Twitter: @Um_Uras