Turkey warns U.S. of reper­cus­sions for arm­ing Kurds

Ankara ‘re­serves the right to take mil­i­tary ac­tion’

Edmonton Journal - - CANADA - By Ka­reem FaHim and adam entous

ISTANBUL • Turkey has threat­ened to step up mil­i­tary ac­tion against Syr­ian Kur­dish fight­ers al­lied with the United States, in re­sponse to the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s de­ci­sion to di­rectly arm the Kurds for an as­sault on the Syr­ian city of Raqqa, Turk­ish of­fi­cials said.

The warn­ing was de­liv­ered to se­nior U.S. na­tional se­cu­rity of­fi­cials in a se­ries of closed-door meet­ings this week, af­ter the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion ex­pressed its in­tent to arm the Kurds fol­low­ing months of de­lib­er­a­tions, the Turk­ish of­fi­cials said.

“Turkey’s mes­sage to the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion was that Turkey re­serves the right to take mil­i­tary ac­tion,” a se­nior Turk­ish of­fi­cial said.

Turkey has al­ready con­ducted limited strikes against the U.S.-backed Kur­dish fight­ers in north­ern Syria in re­cent weeks, but it could in­crease the tempo of those strikes, Turk­ish of­fi­cials said. Amer­i­can of­fi­cials have com­plained bit­terly to Turkey, a NATO ally, about the airstrikes, which have tar­geted the prin­ci­pal U.S. part­ner in Syria in the fight against the Is­lamic State.

Any fur­ther mil­i­tary ac­tion could also po­ten­tially com­pli­cate the of­fen­sive on Raqqa, the Is­lamic State’s sym­bolic cap­i­tal and its last ma­jor strong­hold af­ter the Iraqi city of Mo­sul, which is be­sieged by U.S.-backed Iraqi forces. U.S. of­fi­cials are con­cerned that Turkey could send forces into north­ern Syria and draw the Kur­dish fight­ers away from the Raqqa bat­tle.

Turk­ish of­fi­cials re­acted with pub­lic anger to the U.S. move to arm the Kurds, a de­ci­sion that was an­nounced Tues­day, a week ahead of a state visit to Washington by Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan.

Turkey views the U.S.backed Syr­ian Kur­dish Peo­ple’s Pro­tec­tion Units, or YPG, as an ex­is­ten­tial threat. The YPG, which dom­i­nates a U.S.-sup­ported force known as the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces (SDF), is af­fil­i­ated with the Kur­dis­tan Work­ers’ Party. That or­ga­ni­za­tion, known as the PKK, has fought a decades-long in­sur­gency against the Turk­ish state and is clas­si­fied as a ter­ror­ist group by both Turkey and the United States.

Er­do­gan’s gov­ern­ment, which had an in­creas­ingly testy re­la­tion­ship with Washington to­ward the end of Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s term, has re­peat­edly ex­pressed hopes of warm­ing ties with the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. In a news con­fer­ence Wed­nes­day, Er­do­gan said Turkey’s “pa­tience has ended” and that he hoped the United States would re­verse its de­ci­sion.

“We want to know that our al­lies will stand not with a ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion, but with us,” he said.

Speak­ing to re­porters in Vilnius, Lithua­nia, Defense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis said the United States had “open dis­cus­sions” with Turkey and that he was con­fi­dent Ankara’s con­cerns could be ad­dressed. “It is not al­ways tidy, but we work” any is­sues, he said.

In ref­er­ence to the PKK, Mat­tis said Turkey was “the only NATO ally” con­fronting an in­sur­gency on its own ground, and he vowed that the United States would work closely with Turkey to de­fend its south­ern border. “It’s Europe’s south­ern border,” he said, “and we’ll stay closely con­nected.”

But from Turkey’s per­spec­tive, the U.S. de­ci­sion amounted to a “very se­ri­ous cri­sis” in the re­la­tion­ship, said Ufuk Ulu­tas, the for­eign pol­icy di­rec­tor at the Foun­da­tion for Po­lit­i­cal, Eco­nomic and So­cial Re­search, a gov­ern­ment-friendly think tank in Ankara.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has left Ankara with few op­tions other than in­ten­si­fied mil­i­tary ac­tion against a Kur­dish force that Turkey con­sid­ers a “di­rect na­tional se­cu­rity threat,” he said.

“Is it go­ing to af­fect the Raqqa op­er­a­tion? Prob­a­bly yes. But the prob­lem is, the U.S. is of­fer­ing noth­ing — no way to ap­pease Turkey’s se­cu­rity con­cerns,” he said.

The Raqqa op­er­a­tion has cre­ated a quandary for U.S. mil­i­tary of­fi­cials, who see the YPG as the group most ca­pa­ble of mount­ing an as­sault on the city.

SYR­IAN DEMO­CRATIC FORCES, VIA AP, FILE

A Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces fighter looks to­ward the north­ern town of Tabqa, Syria. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion an­nounced it would arm the SDF to re­cap­ture the ISIL strong­hold of Raqqa, draw­ing a harsh re­buke from Turkey.

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