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Turkey Demands Trump Honor Purported Pledge to Cut Off Weapons to Kurdish Militia

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FILE - This frame grab from video released Aug. 11, 2017, and provided by Furat FM, a Syrian Kurdish activist-run media group, shows U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters advance in Raqqa, Syria.

Turkish officials say they are watching to see whether the United States will honor a promise, which they claim was made by U.S. President Donald Trump to his Turkish counterpart last week, to cut off the supply of arms to Kurdish militias that played a key role in defeating Islamic State militants in Syria.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced the promise at a press conference shortly after the two presidents spoke by telephone Friday.

"Mr. Trump clearly stated that he had given clear instructions, and that the YPG won't be given arms and that this nonsense should have ended a long time ago," the Associated Press quoted Cavusoglu as saying.

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

However, a White House statement issued after the call with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was more circumspect. It said Trump "also informed President Erdogan of pending adjustments to the military support provided to our partners on the ground in Syria, now that the battle of Raqqa is complete and we are progressing into a stabilization phase to ensure that ISIS cannot return." ISIS is an acronym for Islamic State.

The lack of clarity continued Monday, threatening to exacerbate already serious tensions between the United States and its key NATO ally, or alternatively to undermine the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units or YPG, a U.S. ally which bore the brunt of the fighting to clear IS forces from their self-proclaimed capital in Raqqa, Syria.

Turkey's Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said in a television interview Monday that Turkey needs "to see the concrete reflections of [Trump's] statement on the land. Has the PYD/YPG terror organization been given weapons by the U.S. after the statement was made? Turkey will certainly monitor this pledge."

A day earlier, Turkish 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."

FILE - Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, speaks by phone with U.S. President Donald Trump, Nov. 24, 2017.
FILE - Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, speaks by phone with U.S. President Donald Trump, Nov. 24, 2017.

White House statements

U.S. officials, however, continued to offer ambiguous statements Monday.

White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined to confirm how the U.S. is changing its relationship with rebel forces who have been a partner in the fight against the Islamic State.

"Once we started winning the campaign against ISIS, the plan and part of the process is to always wind down support for certain groups. Now that we're continuing to crush the physical caliphate, … we're in a position to stop providing military equipment to certain groups, but that doesn't mean stopping all support of those individual groups," she said.

"The United States is committed to the defeat of ISIS and other terrorist groups in Syria and to ensuring that they cannot return to liberated areas," said a National Security Council statement. "We have always been clear with Turkey that the weapons provided to the Syrian Democratic Forces, which includes the Kurdish People's Protection Units [YPG], would be limited, mission specific, and provided incrementally to achieve these objectives."

A State Department official said the United States "is reviewing pending adjustments to the military support provided to the SDF in as much as the military requirements of our defeat-ISIS and stabilization efforts will allow to prevent ISIS from returning."

FILE - The White House statement regarding the phone conversation between U.S. President Donald Trump and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Nov. 24, 2017.
FILE - The White House statement regarding the phone conversation between U.S. President Donald Trump and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Nov. 24, 2017.

U.S. military officials, meanwhile, appeared to indicate that the YPG is still needed.

"We have always said we would arm the SDF in a limited, metered way," Army Col. Ryan Dillon, spokesman for the counter-ISIS coalition in Iraq and Syria, told VOA.

"There are still areas that have to be cleared in eastern Syria," he said, adding that the U.S. is remaining "open and transparent" with Turkey.

Strained relations

U.S. relations with Turkey have long been strained over U.S. support for the YPG, as well as other issues since a coup attempt against Erdogan in July 2016.

There have been concerns about Turkey's growing ties with Russia and Iran since then, including the possibility that Washington could be cut out of peace talks on Syria and that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime could be allowed to continue its brutal rule.

Erdogan met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani last week to discuss the future of Syria. Both Russia and Iran helped to drive ISIS from areas now controlled by Assad's forces, and they want U.S. forces to leave Syria.

FILE - Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, Russia's President Vladimir Putin, center, and Iran's President Hassan Rouhani pose for the media members in Sochi, Russia, Nov. 22. 2017.
FILE - Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, Russia's President Vladimir Putin, center, and Iran's President Hassan Rouhani pose for the media members in Sochi, Russia, Nov. 22. 2017.

Abdulkareen Sarokhan, president of the administrative council of Jazera, the largest of four cantons in the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Syria, said he did not believe that the U.S. would not cut off support to all Kurdish fighters, and suggested that Turkey is pitting Washington against Moscow.

"Erdogan's message to U.S. is that if you do not stop your support to Kurdish fighters, Ankara will ally itself with Russia," Sarokhan said. "At the same time, he tells Russians that if they do not accept Ankara's conditions regarding these meetings, Ankara will take the U.S. side in its policies in Syria.

"What is important for us [Kurds] is the fight against terrorism; moreover, we do not believe that U.S. will stop its support to FSA [Free Syrian Forces] because that will create a vacuum space for Islamic militants. Americans know that ISIS has established its bases in Northern Syria. Yet, we do not know how the White House statement 'adjustment of military support' would be implemented."

VOA's Steve Herman, Pete Heinlein, Dorian Jones and Carla Babb contributed to this report, along with VOA Turkish and Kurdish services.

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