The Cable

Erdogan to Trump: Don’t Arm the Kurds

He can make his case in person next week.

recep

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday that U.S. President Donald Trump should reverse his decision to arm Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units, or YPG, in Syria ahead of a planned push to take the Islamic State capital of Raqqa.

The U.S. decision to arm the Kurdish militia, considered an important American ally in Syria and the most capable ground force available for the Raqqa operation, was announced Tuesday. On Wednesday, Erdogan said “I hope very much that this mistake will be reversed immediately.”

That is because, to the Turkish government, the YPG is not an ally, but a terrorist group — Ankara considers the group the armed wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which launched an armed insurgency against the Turkish government in 1984 and has been responsible for violent acts since. Turkey, the European Union, and the United States all consider the PKK a terrorist group.

“We want to believe that our allies would prefer be side by side with ourselves rather than with the terror groups,” Erdogan said.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said much of the same, insisting, “every weapon they (Kurds) obtain is a threat to Turkey.”

The diplomatic dustup reflects a reality about U.S.-Turkish relations today. As excited as Erdogan may have been about the end of the Obama administration and the beginning of the time of Trump, the major points of contention remain what they were. Erdogan blames longtime bogeyman Fetullah Gülen, a Turkish cleric who lives in Pennsylvania, for instigating last summer’s failed coup. But Gulen still hasn’t been extradited to Turkey, and the United States remains determined to use Kurdish forces to attack the Islamic State rather than relying on Arab troops in the Syrian Defense Forces.

Meanwhile, Turkey, which backs the opposition in Syria, worked with Russia and Iran to set up de-escalation zones, a controversial plan about which Defense Secretary James Mattis warned, “the devil’s in the details.”

Despite tensions over the Kurds, Trump is still more Erdogan’s cup of tea than his predecessor. After Turkey held a deeply flawed and internationally-criticized referendum this spring to strengthen Erdogan’s political power — a vote the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe described as unfree and unfair — Trump called Erdogan to congratulate him. Meanwhile, plenty of Turkey watchers described Trump’s dismissal of FBI Director James Comey, who was leading an investigation into Trump’s potential ties to Russia, as being straight out of Erdogan’s playbook. (The Turkish president has jailed thousands and silenced media in the months after the coup attempt.)

But personal preferences aside, Turkey views the Kurdish situation as a near-existential threat — meaning the question of lethal aid for the YPG could tear asunder already strained relations between two NATO allies.  

Next week, Erdogan will be able to press the point in person, when he meets Trump at the White House.

Photo credit: OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering ambassadorial and diplomatic affairs in Washington. @emilyctamkin

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