(CNSNews.com) – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaking alongside Vice President Joe Biden in Ankara Wednesday, said governments should not make distinctions between “bad” and “good” terrorists.
“Terrorists are terrorists,” he declared.
Erdogan is a longstanding supporter of Hamas, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization (FTO) since 1997. He rejects that assessment of the Palestinian group.
In his comments Wednesday, reported by the Anadolu state news agency, Erdogan was making the argument that there is no difference between the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL), al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria and Somalia, and his Kurdish and Turkish foes.
“Whether Daesh [ISIS], the PKK, the PYD or FETO, all [are] terrorists in our view,” he said. “[Jabhat] al-Nusra, al-Shabaab whichever … all terrorist organizations. We cannot make distinctions [between] bad terrorists, good terrorists. Terrorists are terrorists.”
The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group waging a separatist struggle with the Turkish state for three decades, is – like Hamas – a U.S.-designated FTO.
By contrast, the U.S. does not recognize the Syria-based Kurdish Democratic Union (PYD) or its YPG armed wing as a terrorist group, regarding it instead as an effective ally in the fight against ISIS. The Kurdish forces were instrumental in the recent liberation of the city of Manbij from ISIS. State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau confirmed Wednesday that “our view on the YPG hasn’t changed.”
That stance angers the Turkish government, which contends that the PYD/YPG is no different to the PKK, with which it is affiliated.
In a gesture to his host, Biden on Wednesday echoed Turkey’s call that the YPG fighters withdraw to the eastern bank of the Euphrates River, which intersects northern Syria roughly halfway between Aleppo and ISIS-held Raqqa. Ankara has called the presence of Syrian Kurdish forces on the western side of the river – where they have helped liberate territory including Manbij from ISIS – a “red line.”
FETO refers to what Ankara calls the Fethullah Gulen Terrorist Organization (FETO).
Turkey accuses Fethullah Gulen, an influential U.S.-based Turkish cleric and former close ally of Erdogan, of being behind a failed coup attempt last month and is demanding that the U.S. extradite him.
Last June, Turkey’s national security council declared Gulen’s movement a terrorist organization, but the State Department made clear that the U.S. government does not.
On the eve of Biden’s visit, U.S. officials met with Turkish counterparts to discuss the application to extradite Gulen.
Erdogan told Biden the U.S. could “at least” detain the cleric. Biden reiterated U.S. support for “our ally Turkey,” and said the U.S. was “committed to doing everything we can to help bring justice for all those responsible for this coup attempt.”
The abortive coup bid, which triggered an unprecedented state crackdown on Gulen supporters and other critics of the government, has tested relations between the U.S. and Turkey. Biden’s visit is designed to ease the tensions.
Troubling policies from a NATO ally
Erdogan’s autocratic policies at home and alliances in the region have long put strains on the partnership between the U.S. and its NATO ally, however.
An Islamist who was elected president in 2014 after serving three terms as prime minister, Erdogan sided with Iran at a time the U.S. was leading efforts to isolate it; supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad before the civil war in time prompted a policy reversal; was one of Israel’s most acerbic critics, until a recent rapprochement; and strongly backs Hamas.
“Let me give you a very clear message,” Erdogan said to U.S. television host Charlie Rose in May 2011. “I don’t see Hamas as a terror organization.”
“It is a resistance movement trying to protect its country under occupation,” he said through an interpreter. “So we should not mix terrorist organizations with such an organization.”
Noting that Hamas had won Palestinian legislative elections five years earlier, Erdogan added, “calling them terrorists, this would be disrespectful to their policy and people.”
Erdogan told Turkish media a year earlier that he had informed his U.S. interlocutors that “I don’t accept Hamas as a terrorist organization.”
Despite his vocal support for the terrorist group, the Obama administration has drawn Turkey into counterterror initiatives – notably its Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF), which Turkey co-chaired from 2011 to 2015.
Erdogan has frequently met with Hamas leaders, including Khaled Meshaal, who at the end of 2014 delivered a short speech at a conference of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party, which he attended as a guest of then-Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.
At the time, a State Department spokesman first had no comment about the collusion between an FTO and a NATO ally, although a day later he read out a statement saying the U.S. position on Hamas had not changed.
“Hamas is a designated foreign terrorist organization. Hamas continues to engage in terrorist activity and demonstrated its intentions, among other times, during this summer’s conflict with Israel,” Rathke said. “And we continue to raise our concerns about the relationship between Hamas and Turkey with senior Turkish officials, including after learning of Khaled Meshaal’s recent visit there.”
Hamas is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings and rocket attacks since the interim Oslo peace accords were signed in 1993. At least 15 Americans were killed between 1993 and 2002 in attacks claimed by Hamas, and several more in other attacks which the group is suspected to have carried out.