ISTANBUL — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Monday he received a “positive response” from US President Donald Trump when he informed him that he will launch a new military offensive against a US-backed Kurdish militia if it remains in parts of northeast Syria despite a warning from the Pentagon that such an incursion would jeopardize the fight against the Islamic State.
It was the second assurance that top Turkish officials attributed to Trump in as many days as they seek concessions from the United States over a raft of disputes ranging from the conflict in Syria to the extradition of Turkish coup suspects and a standoff with Saudi Arabia over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Turkey is outraged by US support for the People’s Protection Units (YPG), labeling it a terrorist organization because of its links to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a three-decade armed campaign for autonomy inside Turkey. Ankara accuses Washington of foot-dragging on an agreement to move the Kurdish fighters east of the Euphrates River and is now threatening to go after them there, too. Turkish warplanes have also bombed Kurdish positions in northern Iraq in recent days.
“I spoke with Mr. Trump. These terrorists need to go to the east of the Euphrates. If they don’t, we will force them out, because they are disturbing us. … Since the US is our strategic ally, they need to do what is necessary,” Erdogan told a crowd of supporters in a televised speech.
“We discussed this with Mr. Trump and he gave a positive response,” he said. “We can start our operation on Syrian soil at any moment along the 500-kilometer [300-mile] border, in particular without causing harm to American soldiers. … We will comb every inch of Syrian territory until the last terrorist is neutralized.”
Erdogan spoke with Trump by phone on Friday after making his initial threat to invade an area of Syria controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the militia dominated by the YPG that has helped the US-led coalition all but defeat Islamic State in Syria.
An estimated 2,000 American special forces are present in the area, and a Pentagon spokesman said last week the United States is “gravely concerned” about the prospect of unilateral military action in the area, deeming it “unacceptable.”
Kurds in the SDF would abandon the fight against the Islamic State elsewhere in Syria to defend against a Turkish attack, said David Phillips, director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University's Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He also said that an incursion could actually worsen Turkey’s border security and risk a direct confrontation with the United States.
“Expect cross-border operations by the PKK from Iraq and Syria to increase if Turkey unilaterally launches an unwarranted and unprovoked attack against north and east Syria,” he told Al-Monitor. “Erdogan should anticipate an ‘American slap’ if US special forces east of the Euphrates are collateral damage from Turkey's offensive.”
In a separate development, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Sunday Trump told Erdogan during the two leaders’ Dec. 1 talks at the G-20 meeting in Argentina that the United States was undertaking efforts to extradite an Islamic cleric Turkey blames for a bungled coup in 2016.
“President Trump told Erdogan that they have been working on that. But we need to see concrete steps because it has already been more than two years,” Cavusoglu told a forum in the Qatari capital of Doha. He also said he had seen a “credible investigation” by the FBI into whether the Gulen movement violated US tax and visa laws, adding Turkey wants the United States to hand over a total of 84 people implicated in the coup.
Prosecutors in Virginia indicted the former business partner of Trump’s ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn on Monday, alleging a conspiracy to illegally influence the US government to extradite Gulen in exchange for $600,000. Flynn is co-operating with a special counsel investigating Trump for alleged ties to Russia, and prosecutors in that probe have recommended he serve little or no prison time for disclosing details about his secret lobbying work.
There was no immediate confirmation from US officials on Trump’s responses to Erdogan on either the prospect of military action in Syria or Gulen’s removal from the United States. Trump describes Erdogan as a friend and last month said ties with Turkey were at “a very good moment.”
Both Erdogan and Cavusoglu may have “exaggerated” support from Trump to shape public opinion in Turkey as well as pressure Trump to meet more of their demands, Phillips said.
Turkey wants Gulen, who has lived in Pennsylvania in self-imposed exile since the late 1990s, to stand trial for allegedly orchestrating an attempt by the Turkish military to violently overthrow Erdogan. Gulen denies involvement.
A tangle of disagreements has ensnared the US-Turkish relationship. Erdogan wants Trump to punish Saudi Arabia for the slaying of Khashoggi, a Saudi critic of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who lived in the United States and wrote a column for the Washington Post. Khashoggi was killed at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October in what Erdogan says was a premeditated attack ordered by the highest levels of the Saudi government.
But Trump has stood by Saudi Arabia, signaling the oil-rich state’s importance for security, US trade and global energy markets outweighs any role the 33-year-old prince may have played in Khashoggi’s death.
Trump’s critics in the United States responded to Cavusoglu’s claim about Gulen’s extradition by accusing the president of seeking to placate Turkey over the Khashoggi killing. Bill Pascrell, a Democratic congressman from New Jersey, depicted Gulen as a victim for his religious beliefs.
“As a dissident facing religious persecution, Gulen does not deserve to be a pawn in Trump’s attempts to cover up the murder of a US resident for the Saudi royal family. Political dissidents deserve America’s protections, not be subject to Trump’s duplicitous schemes,” Pascrell wrote on Twitter.
Last month, Trump rejected news reports that his administration was considering ousting Gulen to appease Turkey over the Khashoggi case. NBC reported the White House had asked law enforcement to re-examine Turkey’s request for extradition and his status as a US resident. Publicly, the United States says Turkey has not met the high evidentiary standards for Gulen’s extradition.
“The sense of community between Turkey and the United States has been eroded and the relationship is increasingly transactional. There is still rhetoric about the strategic alliance but we see that this isn’t so in approach,” said Ilter Turan, professor emeritus of political science at Bilgi University.
In the short term, Turkey may be satisfied if the current standoff with the United States results in the SDF leaving the town of Manbij, which is on the Euphrates’ western banks, and if it takes steps to limit the Kurdish militants’ ability to operate in northern Iraq, he told Al-Monitor.
Nationwide municipal elections in March may also be a factor in Erdogan’s sabre-rattling, Turan added. “After seeing an easing in its [electoral] support, the ruling party is preparing for an emergency situation in international politics. Foreign relations are used as an instrument to benefit domestic politics.”
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