Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim warned on Thursday that the United States will “seriously undermine and damage” relations with its NATO ally if President Donald Trump goes through with a plan to back Kurdish forces in the fight to retake Raqqa, the effective capital of the Islamic State.
“Our stance is very clear: if there is going to be an operation against ISIS in Raqqa . . . then it should be carried out jointly by the U.S. and Turkey,” he said. He added that Turkey would not take part in any operation to capture Raqqa from the Islamic State if the offensive included the Peoples Protection Units, a Syrian Kurdish militia known as the YPG that has been trained and equipped by the U.S.
Yildirim’s assertion in an interview with visiting journalists was just the latest expression of anxiety by Turkish officials that the United States intends to lean heavily on the YPG to take control of Raqqa. Turkey considers the group to be an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought an guerrilla campaign against the Turkish state for more than three decades and which Turkey, the United States and the European Union have declared a terrorist organization.
3,000 U.S. troops at Incirlik base in Turkey
If the U.S. decides to back the YPG in the fight for Raqqa it will “show that they value a terrorist organization more than they do us,” the prime minister said. “You cannot simply eradicate a terrorist organization by partnering with another terror organization.”
Similar positions were staked out by Turkish officials in a series of interviews this week as the United States nears a decision on the Raqqa operation. Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, held a rare meeting with his Russian and Turkish counterparts in Antalya, Turkey, on Tuesday to discuss the offensive. On Thursday, the Pentagon announced that 400 U.S. Marines have been moved into Syria with heavy artillery in anticipation of the campaign to take back the strategic city.
News reports have said the Pentagon has proposed significant U.S. participation in any Raqqa offensive and suggested that it would continue to provide equipment and advice to the Kurdish forces.
“If they insist on going with (the YPG), the friendship of the United States and Turkey will be seriously undermined and damaged,” Yildirim said. “We’ve made our opinions very clear to the U.S. side, so the buck is on the U.S. side.”
This decision will be made by politicians. Soldiers will not be the ones to make that decision. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim
Yildirim would not say how Turkey would respond if the U.S. goes forward with arming the Kurds and relying on them and allied Arab forces to push the Islamic State out of Raqqa. Turkey is the only majority Muslim country in the NATO alliance, and it hosts more than 3,000 U.S. troops at Incirlik Air Base, a key launching point for air strikes against the Islamic State.
U.S.-Turkey relations have been tense for years over fighting in Syria, where the battlefield has grown increasingly complex, with numerous armed groups and a variety of military objectives. What began as a civil war to topple the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad has turned into a far more complicated battle that defies easy summation.
In addition to the anti-Assad movement, armed factions include the Islamic State, an al Qaida affiliate generally referred to as the Nusra Front, and dozens of rebel groups, some of which receive aid from the United States, and others that the U.S. considers aligned with al Qaida.
Added to the mix are Russian, Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah forces who are fighting on behalf of the Assad government, as well as the Kurdish YPG and the so-called Syrian Defense Forces, the YPG-affiliated coalition that includes Arab fighters. Last year, Turkey sent troops into Syria in an effort to prevent YPG forces from controlling the border region and to bolster Free Syrian Army units whose own offensive against the Islamic State was foundering.
Yildirim said he was hopeful that under Trump, the relationship with the U.S. would “continue on a more positive note than it used to be in the past couple of years.” Even so, he said he expected President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to raise concerns about Trump’s use of the phrase “Islamic terrorism” when the two leaders meet. He called the term “divisive language.”
Others see the upcoming Raqqa operation as a critical test. “Turkey is a vital partner in this effort here. We cannot do what we’re doing without them,” Army Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday in Washington.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the chairman of the committee, offered a blunter assessment: “I foresee a train wreck,” he said, adding that he doesn’t believe the Trump administration fully understands just how seriously Erdogan opposes Kurdish involvement in any offensive.
Several Turkish officials blamed the administration of President Barack Obama for a decided anti-American turn in Turkish public opinion in recent years. The situation worsened in the waning months of Obama’s presidency when little U.S. attention was paid to the Syrian conflict, they said.
“The last six to eight months of the Obama administration have been marked by complete absence” on Syria, said Ibrahim Kalin, an Erdogan adviser. “They simply did not pay any attention to it. And all the red lines and all that stuff simply went down the drain.”
The prime minister and other top officials expressed frustration that the U.S.-backed YPG is widely considered the most effective fighting force against the Islamic State in northern Syria. Kalin said recent victories by the Free Syrian Army disprove that, pointing to the liberation of the northern Syrian towns of al Bab and Jarabulus, which were once held by the Islamic State.
Still, Turkish feelings are raw over suggestions that they had not done enough in the early years of the Syrian conflict to prevent the growth of the Islamic State, thousands of whose foreign fighters crossed into Syria from Turkey. “If anybody out there has any question about Turkey’s commitment to combating (ISIS) . . . clearly they have to get their facts checked,” said Mehmet Simsek, Turkey’s deputy prime minister.
The looming U.S. decision on how to move against the Islamic State at Raqqa presents challenges. U.S. troops have recently moved near the Syrian city of Manbij, which was captured from the Islamic State by Kurdish-aligned fighters, to prevent clashes between Turkish-backed rebels and the U.S.-backed Kurds.
Votel said the presence of U.S. forces near Manbij is providing “a measure of assurance for our local partners and Turkey,” he said, but Erdogan adviser Kalin accused the United States of reneging on a promise “by Obama officials not just privately but also publicly” that YPG forces would move out of liberated areas near Manbij.