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Despite Claims of US Concessions on Kurds, Turkey Rebukes Washington

  • Dorian Jones

Turkish Minister of Interior, Suleyman Soylu, speaks to journalists in Ankara, Turkey, Dec. 19, 2016.

Senior Turkish ministers have strongly criticized the United States and its policies toward Turkey and the region. The criticisms come after Turkish officials said the Trump administration met a key Turkish demand to end the arming of a Syrian Kurdish militia.

U.S. officials have not confirmed the Turkish government's claim and have only said that President Donald Trump informed Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan of “pending adjustments” to the military support provided to U.S. partners on the ground in Syria.

Turkey accuses the YPG militia of supporting Kurdish insurgents inside the country and officials were enraged by what they saw as U.S. support of a group Turkey considers a terrorist organization. Despite Turkish reports of a concession by Trump, Turkish ministers have continued to criticize Washington. On Sunday, Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu issued a thinly veiled threat.

“I am talking to the Western powers who are trying to play games over Turkey. You are going to suffer a historic slap and you will be sorry; you cannot trick Turkey,” Soylu said.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu talks at the Foreign Press Club, in Rome, Nov. 23, 2017.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu talks at the Foreign Press Club, in Rome, Nov. 23, 2017.

The angry words followed remarks by Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who spoke at a rally of party supporters Sunday and said the U.S. will, in his words, be educated on how to talk to Turkey. Anti-U.S. rhetoric plays well with ruling AK Party voters ahead of elections in two years; but, international relations expert Soli Ozel of Istanbul's Kadir Has University sees the rhetoric as a sign of the deep distrust that exists between the NATO allies.

"Overall, there is a problem specifically between the U.S. and Turkey,” Ozel said. “Trust is a word that has been struck out of the shared vocabulary of the two countries, neither side trusts the other. And that is not really a good way of keeping an alliance or keeping a partnership.”

While several ministers have called for the U.S. leadership to honor what they interpret as Washington’s commitment to stop arming the Syrian Kurdish militia, observers say Ankara remains uneasy about what Washington has actually said, compared to Ankara’s takeaway from conversations between U.S. and Turkish leaders, which was that the U.S. would end support for the Kurdish militia immediately.

A White House statement last week said that consistent with previous U.S. policy, President Trump had “informed President Erdogan of pending adjustments to the military support provided to our partners on the ground in Syria,” a move the statement said was possible “now that the battle of Raqqa is complete” and the effort has progressed into a “stabilization phase to ensure that ISIS cannot return.”

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim speaks to the media in Ankara, Turkey, Sept. 22, 2017.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim speaks to the media in Ankara, Turkey, Sept. 22, 2017.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim stepped up pressure on Washington, calling for it to take back the arms it has already given to the Kurdish group, something he said the U.S. had earlier promised.

Even if differences over Syria are resolved, other issues of tension remain.

Turkish government spokesman Bekir Bozdag on Monday alleged that an Iranian sanction-busting trial in New York against Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab was a plot against Turkey.

“They want to impose certain sanctions on Turkey through the Zarrab case, but the trade between Iran and Turkey is in line with our laws and international laws,” Bozdag said.

Zarrab, along with a senior state Turkish banking official and former ministers, are accused of circumventing U.S. sanctions to avoid paying billions of dollars. Jury selection for the trial started Monday with proceedings scheduled to begin Dec. 4.

The trial comes as Ankara and Tehran are increasingly cooperating in Syria and the wider region. On Sunday, the two countries signed a deal to enhance trade with Qatar and help ease Saudi Arabia’s blockade of the Gulf state. Deepening Turkish-Iranian cooperation will cause unease in Washington, analysts say, especially as Turkey is seen as key to curbing Iran’s growing regional influence.

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