Turkey grudgingly accepts Trump’s support for Syrian Kurds

A brawl in front of the Turkish ambassador’s residence in Washington was seen as a reminder of a growing authoritarian trend in Turkey.

A lot in common. US President Donald Trump (L) with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan following their meeting at the White House, on May 16. (AP)


2017/05/21 Issue: 107 Page: 14


The Arab Weekly
Thomas Seibert



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.


Thomas Seibert is an Arab Weekly contributor in Istanbul.


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