US decision to arm Kurds in Syria poses threat to Turkey, says Ankara
The Turkish government has criticised a US decision to directly arm Kurdish militants in Syria as a “threat to Turkey” – the first diplomatic scuffle between the two Nato powers since President Donald Trump took office.
The condemnations from Ankara by Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, it prime minister and top diplomat came before a face-to-face meeting between Trump and his Turkish counterpart later this month.
US officials said on Tuesday that Trump approved a deal to directly supply arms to the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia that Turkey has long argued is a terrorist organisation affiliated with its own homegrown Kurdish insurgent group, the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK).
The tensions between Washington and Ankara came as US-backed Kurdish-led forces said they had captured Syria’s largest dam and the nearby town of Tabqa from the Islamic State.
The gains for the Syrian Democratic Forces, cofounded by the YPG and including Arab fighters, leave no other major urban settlements on the remaining 25 miles to Raqqa, Isis’s de facto capital and its last significant stronghold in Syria.
The US said on Tuesday it was arming the SDF fighters as a necessary step to recapture Raqqa despite opposition from Turkey, which sees the Kurdish forces as an extension of the insurgency raging in its southeast.
At a press conference during a state visit to Sierra Leone, Erdoğan said the fight against terrorism could not be carried out in alliance with terrorist groups, adding that he would raise his concerns directly with Trump.
“I want to believe that Turkey’s allies will side with us, not with terrorist organisations,” he added.
Binali Yıldırım, the Turkish prime minister, joined the chorus of outrage in Turkey – a key strategic ally and the second largest army in Nato – at the US decision seen as a betrayal in Ankara after a rapprochement following Trump’s inauguration.
“Turkey cannot imagine the US choosing between a strategic partnership with Turkey and a terrorist organisation,” he said, adding that the decision was unacceptable.
“Both the PKK and the YPG are terrorist organisations and they are no different, apart from their names,” said the foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, in comments broadcast live by Turkish TV.
“Every weapon seized by them is a threat to Turkey.”
Turkey views the YPG’s expansionism and its plans for an autonomous zone in northern Syria with suspicion, and considers such an entity a major national security threat.
Ankara had long urged the Obama administration to break with the YPG, arguing that they had carried out forced displacement of ethnic Arabs in the quest to forge a Kurdish canton on the border.
Eliminating these concerns was a key objective for Ankara when it intervened militarily in the war in Syria last summer, sending tanks and special forces across the border alongside Turkish-backed Syrian rebels.
They ousted Islamic State militants from several strongholds near the border, but also blocked Kurdish attempts to join their two cantons in northern Syria.
Barack Obama and now Trump regard the YPG and its umbrella force, the SDF, as the most reliable ground force in the battle against Isis.
The SDF has cleared large swaths of territory from Islamic State, particularly around Raqqa.
With direct arms supplies from the US they may soon be poised to take on the self-proclaimed caliphate’s main urban centre, a proposition that Turkey has vehemently opposed, saying the operation should be led by Arab ground forces.
The YPG welcomed the US decision, describing it as “late” but “historic”.
“This correct decision to arm our units exposes the falsehoods levelled against our forces,” Rêdûr Xelîl, the spokesman for the YPG, said.
“From now on, and after this historic arming decision, our units will play a greater and more effective role in combating terrorism.”
The fresh diplomatic crisis will probably raise tensions with the Trump administration before the meeting with Erdoğan.
The Turkish president has openly expressed admiration for Trump and has sought to reboot the rocky relationship that characterised the Obama years.
Those poor relations where down in part to Obama’s refusal to forcefully push for the removal of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, and Washington’s backing of the Kurdish militias, whose campaigns against Isis were supported by US airstrikes.
Trump had in the past described Erdoğan as a strong leader and was the first western leader to call him in the aftermath of a constitutional referendum in which the Turkish electorate narrowly voted to grant him sweeping new powers, a measure that had been criticised harshly in European capitals.
Ankara had hoped to secure a guarantee from Washington that the campaign to retake Raqqa would be led by Arab fighters, in addition to seeking the extradition of Fethullah Gülen, an exiled preacher based in Pennsylvania whose movement is widely believed in Turkey to have orchestrated a coup attempt last July.