Turks unite to condemn Trump's threat to 'devastate' economy

Turkish government officials and members of the opposition condemned President Donald Trump's threat to "devastate Turkey economically" if Ankara attacks Washington's Kurdish allies in northern Syria.

al-monitor US President Donald Trump speaks to the media from the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, US, Jan. 14, 2019. Photo by REUTERS/Leah Millis.

Jan 14, 2019

ANKARA, Turkey — Turks erupted with a chorus of scorn for President Donald Trump’s threat to devastate their economy if the Turkish armed forces attacked the Syrian Kurds. Even parties that oppose President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s plan to march into northeast Syria deplored Trump’s choice of words.

“Nobody has ever been able to threaten Turkey like this in its history,” said Faik Oztrak, the spokesman for the main opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP).

In a tweet posted before dawn on Monday Turkish time, Trump said the United States was beginning to withdraw from Syria while at the same time attacking the remnants of the Islamic State. In a sudden change of direction, Trump added: “Will devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds.”

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters, “We’re not afraid of any threats. The US cannot get anywhere with economic threats."

“This nation will bear hunger and thirst to fight terrorism as it did in Kut al-Amara and Canakkale in 1915,” he said, referring to battles in which the Ottoman Empire defeated Britain and its allies in World War I.

“We don’t approve of this kind of communication on Twitter. Strategic partners don’t talk via social media,” Cavusoglu said. He recalled that two days beforehand, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called him to discuss Syria.

The mainstream NTV channel called Trump’s tweet a “new Johnson letter,” referring to President Lyndon B. Johnson's letter to Prime Minister Ismet Inonu in 1964 warning him not to invade Cyprus during the bloody clashes between Turkish and Greek Cypriots. The letter has gone down in Turkish history as a prize example of US humiliation.

CHP spokesman Oztrak said his party could not accept “a statement that targets the social peace and economy of our country.”

“As CHP, we argue that sovereign powers should leave Syria immediately,” referring to the forces of Turkey, Russia, Iran and the United States. “Syria’s territorial integrity should be respected.”

Turkey’s Kurdish population, however, would “welcome this kind of international support for the rights of the Kurds,” Nazmi Gur, the head of the foreign department of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), told Al-Monitor. Turkey’s 14 million Kurds largely empathize with their ethnic cousins in Syria, Iraq and Iran.

“What is important for us is the message itself,” said Gur, a former legislator for the eastern city of Van. “We cannot agree with the method in which [Trump] gave his message to Turkey.”

“This kind of undiplomatic language has made Turkish politicians mad,” he added.

In his next tweet, Trump spoke as if he wanted to be even-handed: “Likewise, do not want the Kurds to provoke Turkey.” But Turks were not consoled.

The Turkish lira fell by 1.6% to reach 5.55 to the dollar. It later strengthened somewhat but was still above 5.50 to the dollar, which has been seen as a threshold.

President Erdogan has repeatedly said Turkish forces will cross into northeast Syria to wipe out the Syrian Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). In the past few days, the Turkish armed forces have said they have completed their preparations for such an offensive.

The government sees the YPG as a terrorist group as it is the sister organization of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). But the YPG is also the main component of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the US-backed coalition of Arabs and Kurds that has fought so well against the Islamic State that the militants now hold a tiny fraction of the territory they controlled three years ago. To Ankara’s intense annoyance, Washington refuses to regard the YPG as terrorists.

The question is, what will Trump do if Turkey goes ahead with its offensive to knock out the YPG?

Economist Cem Oyvat told Al-Monitor he could not predict what levers Trump would pull, but “any sort of action” would affect Turkey’s markets.

One saw this during the confrontation over Turkey’s prosecution of the American pastor Andrew Brunson. In August, Trump doubled tariffs on imports of Turkish steel and aluminum. The move had a dramatic effect on the already falling lira. By early September the currency had lost 40% of its value against the dollar in 2018. The central bank raised interest rates by 6.25%. The lira stabilized but inflation kept on rising, reaching 25% in November.

Oyvat, who teaches economics at the University of Greenwich in London, said the actual impact of a US hike in tariffs is limited because Turkey trades much more with Europe than the United States. But any move by Trump would make investors nervous about capital inflows to Turkey. “The psychological impact would be much larger than the real impact.”

Turkey is struggling with “high indebtedness in the private sector,” and the debt tends to be denominated in dollars. “If the dollar appreciates against the Turkish lira again, it will be a huge problem for Turkey,” Oyvat said.

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