Morning Brief

U.S.-Turkey Tensions Flare Over Iraq Deaths

Erdogan declared U.S. condemnation of the deaths a “joke,” before the United States delivered a swift clarification.

Turkish President and leader of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during his party's group meeting at the Turkish Grand National Assembly in Ankara on February 10, 2021.
Turkish President and leader of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during his party's group meeting at the Turkish Grand National Assembly in Ankara on February 10, 2021. ADEM ALTAN/AFP via Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Turkey’s president lambasts the U.S. response to Turkish deaths in Iraq, the World Trade Organization chooses its first female—and first African—leader, and Guinea declares an Ebola virus epidemic.

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Erdogan Questions U.S. Support

The United States was forced to move quickly to calm tensions with Turkey after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan questioned U.S. support following the deaths of 13 soldiers and policemen held by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq.

The Turkish government’s account says that the Turkish captives were executed by their PKK captors. The PKK maintains that Turkish airstrikes caused the deaths. The U.S. condemnation that followed was a hedge—offering the usual strong rhetoric on the condition that the reports were confirmed.

The reaction was soon derided as a “joke” by Erdogan, who summoned the U.S. ambassador to Turkey and accused the United States of wavering support. “If we are together with you in NATO, if we are to continue our unity, then you will act sincerely towards us. Then, you will stand with us, not with the terrorists,” Erdogan said.

In a call with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken affirmed that “PKK terrorists bear responsibility,” according to State Department spokesman Ned Price.

It is the latest episode in a longer spat. U.S. forces have fought alongside the PKK-affiliated Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, in the battle against the Islamic State in Syria, a military alliance that continues to anger Ankara.

Opposition pushback. Browbeating the United States can also be seen as a diversionary tactic. As the New York Times  reports, Turkey’s opposition parties have “questioned why the government had failed to negotiate the men’s release and had risked a military operation to rescue them.”

A good crisis? It’s also comes at a convenient time in Turkey’s politics, when anti-Kurdish sentiment could be used to pursue other objectives. On Feb. 1, Erdogan floated the possibility of writing a new constitution, building on an idea voiced weeks before Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahceli, an Erdogan ally, who suggested a constitutional change to ban the pro-Kurdish Peoples Democratic Party (HDP) for fomenting separatism. On Monday, HDP members were among those detained in mass arrests targeting supposed PKK elements.

The World This Week

On Wednesday, Feb. 17, detained Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi is scheduled to appear at a court hearing, ostensibly over violations of an import-export law. The hearing was moved unexpectedly from Monday Feb. 15.

Thursday, Feb. 18, is the deadline for Hong Kong’s 180,000 civil service employees to sign a document pledging allegiance to the city’s government and its Basic Law. Chinese officials have been clear that any act that “aims to undermine the government in the governance and administration of Hong Kong,” would violate the declaration, including supporting pro-independence movements.

On Friday, Feb. 19, the Munich Security Conference Special Edition takes place online. Speakers include U.S. President Joe Biden and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

On Sunday, Feb. 21, Niger holds a presidential election runoff following a first round vote on Dec. 27. Voter will choose between ruling party candidate Mohamed Bazoum and former president Mahamane Ousmane.

What We’re Following Today

WTO’s new director-general. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former Nigerian minister of finance and foreign affairs, has been chosen to lead the World Trade Organization after she received unanimous backing from the trade body. Okonjo-Iweala, who also holds U.S. citizenship, will be the first woman and the first African to assume the post.

Her path to director-general had been stymied for months as the Trump administration refused to back her nomination, instead favoring South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee. In her acceptance speech, Okonjo-Iweala warned against vaccine nationalism and described the troubles facing the beleaguered body as “numerous and tricky but not insurmountable.”

India arrests student activist. New Delhi police have arrested a 22-year-old activist for sedition after she shared and made edits to a document—a Google doc—shared by climate activist Greta Thunberg when she expressed her support for India’s farmer protests.

The document provided background on the protests as well as providing advice on nonviolent actions to support the farmers. “The Indian state must be standing on very shaky foundations if Disha Ravi, a 22-year-old student of Mount Carmel college and a climate activist, has become a threat to the nation,” said P. Chidambaram of the opposition Indian National Congress.

Ebola in Guinea. Guinea has declared an Ebola epidemic after three people died from the disease. Neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone have begun emergency response measures in the wake of the news, announced after a Guinean government meeting on Sunday. What makes this epidemic different to the one that began in Guinea in 2014 is the presence of a vaccine, which the World Health Organization pledged to make available as soon as possible.

Keep an Eye On

South Africa’s corruption inquiry. A South African judge has called for a prison sentence for former President Jacob Zuma after the former South African leader refused an order to appear before a corruption inquiry. Judge Ray Zondo has called on the country’s constitutional court to find Zuma guilty of contempt, citing the poor example it would set. Zuma has been implicated in corruption by at least 40 witnesses, a lawyer for the inquiry said.

Prisoner swap. The United States could soon secure the release of former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan from prison in Russia in a swap deal, Whelan’s lawyer told Reuters. Russia’s foreign ministry said on Jan. 27 that any discussion of a prisoner exchange was merely a pressure tactic from the West. Nevertheless, Whelan’s lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, said negotiations are ongoing and “will be resolved in the coming two to three months.” Zherebenkov suggested arms dealer Viktor Bout or Konstantin Yaroshenko, who is being held in the U.S. on drug charges, could be part of the exchange.

Odds and Ends

A man in northern Ukraine made a risky call on Saturday in the hopes of having his road cleared of snow. As Ukraine faces record 20-inch snowfalls, the man decided to place a hoax call to police, confessing to a murder, and urging the authorities to bring a snowplow as the only way to access his home.

The police eventually did show up in an SUV (no snowplow required)—only to discover the man’s deception. The person he claimed to have killed was alive and well in the house. He now faces a fine of roughly $4.30 for making a false report.

Yuliya Kovtun, a police spokeswoman, told AFP that municipal services had already cleared the road earlier that day, but the man “was not satisfied with the quality of the clearing.”

That’s it for today.

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Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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