Behind Warm Words, Deep Divisions Between US, Turkey Over US Support for Syrian Kurds Fighting ISIS

By Patrick Goodenough | May 16, 2017 | 9:53pm EDT
President Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speak to reporters at the White House on Tuesday, May 16, 2017. (Screengrab from White House footage)

( – President Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan both touted the strong ties between the two NATO allies during their White House meeting Tuesday, but behind the warm words lay deep and unresolved differences over the nature and role of U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in Syria.

In comments to reporters, Erdogan praised Trump for his “legendary triumph” in the election and expressed the hope bilateral relations would thrive under his administration.

Trump focused more on the relationship between nations than on Turkey’s autocratic Islamist leader personally, although he did say it was a “great honor” to welcome him to the White House.

Trump recalled the allies’ Cold War partnership and expressed support for the Turkish people in the face of terrorism, deliberately referring both to ISIS and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a long and violent separatist campaign against the Turkish state.

The PKK and more particularly its Kurdish counterparts in Syria lie at the heart of current tensions between Washington and Ankara.

Late last month, Turkish warplanes targeted a base of a Kurdish group called the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northeastern Syria, killing at least 20 of its fighters.

The YPG is the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union (PYD), a Syrian group with ties to the PKK, and therefore viewed by Turkey as terrorists.

But the United States, while it shares Turkey’s opinion of the PKK, regards the YPG as one of the most effective forces arrayed against ISIS jihadists in the region.

As such, the Turkish bombing was an unusual case of one U.S. ally carrying out a deadly strike against another. Adding to the frustrations for U.S. policymakers is the perception that Erdogan’s Turkey for a long time enabled ISIS to flourish, especially by allowing jihadists from dozens of countries to travel through its territory to join the terrorists in Syria.

Days after the provocative airstrikes the rift threatened to deepen when the Trump administration announced plans to provide heavy machine guns, anti-tank weapons and armored vehicles to the YPG for the looming campaign aimed at dislodging ISIS from its stronghold in Raqqa.

In his public comments Tuesday, Trump voiced appreciation for “Turkey’s leadership in seeking an end to the horrific killing in Syria” but did not mention the dispute over the Syrian Kurdish group.

Erdogan made a point, however, of underlining his government’s stance on the Syrian Kurds, saying that “there is no place for the terrorist organizations in the future of our region,” and adding that engaging the YPG/PYD as partners “will never be accepted.”

Furthermore, he said, such a step, “no matter which country does it, certainly does not fall in line with the global agreement that has been reached” on combating terrorism.

Erdogan reiterated his oft-repeated stance that the allies must fight against “all forms of terrorism, without any discrimination whatsoever.”

Ironically, Erdogan is one of the foremost supporters of Hamas, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization since 1997. He rejects charges that the Palestinian group’s fighters are terrorists.

Ahead of his visit, Erdogan had voiced the hope he might be able to persuade Trump to reconsider U.S. support for the YPG.

A second major item on the Turk’s agenda was his government’s bid to have the U.S. extradite Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Turkish cleric whom Erdogan accuses of directing a failed coup attempt last summer.

Gulen, who was a close ally of Erdogan before the two fell out and became rivals, denies any involvement in the coup plot, and U.S. authorities have said Turkey has provided insufficient evidence.

Erdogan said Tuesday he had again “frankly” communicated Ankara’s expectations regarding Gulen.

Turkey lobby groups in the U.S. urged the administration in a Washington Post ad Tuesday to drop its support for the YPG, arguing that “The U.S. should support its ally rather than back a terrorist organization.”

On the day of the Erdogan-Trump meeting, back home Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told a meeting of the ruling AK Party that if the U.S. did not provide the “necessary assurances,” the government would not hesitate to carry out cross-border military strikes against “terror organizations.”

“Cooperation with one terrorist organization in order to defeat another terrorist organization is unacceptable,” the Hurriyet daily quoted Yildirim as saying, echoing Erdogan’s remarks in Washington regarding the YPG.

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