The Turkish President Recep Erdogan scaled up his rhetoric against Washington dramatically as the countdown begins for the visit by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Ankara on February 15. Addressing the Turkish parliament, Erdogan hit hard that the US should expect an “Ottoman slap” if it continued to align with the Syrian Kurds. “They (Americans) have mistaken Turkey for the kind of place where they can come and go as they please without giving an account. They will soon see that it’s not such a place,” Erdogan warned.
Turkey is infuriated by reports that the Pentagon has requested $1.4 billion for the 2019 fiscal year to train and equip Kurds in Iraq and Syria. A key aspect of the long-term strategy is the building up of local Kurdish forces. Tillerson confirmed this in a statement in Washingtonon Tuesday when he said, “The United States will maintain a conditions-based and ISIS-focused military presence in Syria. As part of that presence, we will continue to train local security forces in Syria.” Erdoğan warned today that Washington’s decision to continue funding the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia will “affect Turkey’s decisions.” He insisted that although initial aid figures are estimated at $550 million, “information obtained by Ankara” indicated that this financial support “could increase to $3 billion.”
Clearly, the Trump administration is ignoring Turkey’s warnings and is proceeding to raise a well-trained Kurdish force in northern Syria equipped with American weapons. This is also the Russian assessment. At a press conference today, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov did some plain-speaking on what the US project in Syria looks like: In general, we have a suspicion…. that the United States wants to stay there (Syria) for a long time, if not forever… The Americans, in my opinion… are trying to act by dangerous unilateral steps. And by the way, these steps look more and more like part of a line for creating a certain quasi-state on a large part of the Syrian territory on the eastern bank of the Euphrates and up to the Iraqi border.
Turkey is adamant that it will resist any such US project to carve out a Kurdish state along its border with Syria. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said on Tuesday that Turkey will eliminate all threats along its borders “wherever they come from. Those who want to found a state along our borders will be disappointed.” Yildirim called on the U.S. “to cut its support to those murderers (Kurdish militia) and stop giving them weapons. This is a dark, dead-end-street. You (US) still have time to correct your mistake.”
It may appear that things are moving toward a Turkey-US confrontation. However, the US is playing for time by engaging Turkey. The National Security Advisor HR McMaster visited Ankara in the weekend and the two defence ministers also met in Brussels. Tillerson is arriving in Ankara on Thursday. Washington estimates that there is still time available to negotiate a deal pending the completion of Turkey’s current military operations in Afrin. The Kurds in Afrin are fiercely resisting the Turkish forces. The Turkish Army General Staff announced on Monday that 31 Turkish army men have been killed and 143 more wounded in the offensive against the Kurds in Afrin so far. According to the Russian media, Kurdish fighters in Afrin have received new weapons and may launch counter-attacks inside Turkey. (An advanced Turkish drone was shot down in Afrin today.) Kurds from Iraq are also joining the fighting in Afrin.
The best American hope will be that the Turkish forces get bogged down in Afrin for quite a while. And, indeed, the US calculates that if the Turkish forces take a heavy toll in Afrin and the going gets tough, Erdogan may not even have the appetite to escalate the operations to the other regions in northern Syria west of the Euphrates that are presently under the control of US-backed Syrian Kurdish militia. However, it is a risky gambit because it is not only Turkey but Russia and Iran also who want the US military presence in Syria to end. During a congressional testimony in Washington, DC, on February 6, the former US ambassador to Iraq and Syria Robert Ford explicitly warned that it is a matter of time before the US personnel in Syria get targeted. Ambassador Ford’s testimony is here.