Speaking after a NATO defense ministers’ meeting in Brussels on Thursday, Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli said he had told his US counterpart, Jim Mattis, that Washington’s support for the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia has helped Kurdish rebels in Turkey “grow and strengthen,” posing an increasingly “existential”threat to Turkey.
Canikli said he presented documents to Mattis which prove “organic” links between the YPG and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), recognized as terrorist by the US, EU and Turkey. He also said that he disputed Mattis’ description of the SDF as being dominated by Arabs, saying the force is completely controlled by the YPG.
“We demanded this relationship be ended, I mean we want them to end all the support given to the Syrian arm of the PKK, the YPG,” Canliki said. “We demanded this structure be removed from SDF.”
Mattis, for his part, said the US and Turkey are having an open dialogue about their growing differences over the fight in Syria and “finding common ground.”
“I believe we are finding common ground and there are areas of uncommon ground where sometimes war just gives you bad alternatives to choose from,” Mattis said following the meeting. He described discussions with Canikli as “absolutely open and honest dialogue” and insisted the two countries are “coming together on what we can do together.”
The US considers Syrian Kurds to be vital in the fight against Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) in Syria, and earlier this week unveiled a budget plan which would send $550 million in new assistance to Syrian opposition forces. That money would include $300 million for training and equipment and $250 million for a border security force which would enhance security in former IS strongholds and stem the flow of militants.
Ankara, however, believes the SDF is linked to the PKK, an extremist group which operates within Turkey. The US also considers the PKK to be a terrorist organization, but has vowed to monitor weapons given to Kurdish fighters and ensure they don’t end up in the hands of the PKK.
Tuesday’s NATO meeting came amid increasing tensions between Ankara and Washington, particularly amid Turkey’s ‘Operation Olive Branch’, which it launched against Kurdish fighters in Afrin on January 20. The US has called for restraint and said the fighting distracts from the campaign to defeat IS.
Earlier this week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had strong words for the US, while referencing a recent remark by Lt. Gen. Paul E. Funk, the top US commander in the US-led coalition against IS, who said that Turkey would face a sharp response if it struck Manbij, Syria.
“It is obvious that those, who say they will ‘give a sharp response’ if they were hit, have not been hit by the Ottoman slap,” Erdogan said in response. The remark is in reference to a Turkish martial arts move that involves a potent open-palm hit, resulting in a one-hit knockout or even skull fractures and death.
The NATO meeting came ahead of contentious talks between US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Turkish officials, including Erdogan. Those talks were scheduled to take place later on Thursday.