Turkey has asked Washington to hand over its bases in Syria as the Trump administration appeared to reverse plans to withdraw from the country’s north-east on Tuesday, jeopardising Ankara’s plans to launch a widespread military operation targeting Kurdish groups.
The fresh row between the two Nato allies broke out as the US national security adviser, John Bolton, was in Ankara to row back on a surprise announcement by Donald Trump in December that US forces would leave imminently, abandoning Kurdish proxies who had led its ground war against the Islamic State terror group. Turkey views those same Kurdish groups as mortal foes.
In a scathing speech to parliament, delivered while Bolton was still in the Turkish capital, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said the US envoy had “made a serious mistake” and that Turkey would never agree to a compromise that protected the Kurdish militia, known as the YPG, whose members helped a US-led coalition push Isis out of most of Syria’s east.
“Elements of the US administration are saying different things,” said Erdoğan. “The YPG and the PKK can never be representatives of the Kurdish people.”
Signalling the rift, Erdogan appeared to snub Bolton by not meeting with him, leaving the US National Security Adviser to instead hold talks with his Turkish counterpart, Ibrahim Kalin, and other officials at Ankara’s presidency complex.
The Turkish leader said Ankara’s military had finished preparations to enter Syria and that Washington was stalling on a commitment to leave the town of Manbij as a first step.
Before arriving in Ankara, Bolton had directly contradicted the US president, claiming Washington would not leave Syria without first receiving guarantees that Turkey would not attack its allies.
The added condition came amid a furore over Trump’s claims that Isis had been defeated and his apparent disregard for the fate of Kurdish forces recruited for the cause, whom Ankara had never accepted as legitimate allies. Erdoğan on Tuesday repeated his insistence that no there is no distinction between the YPG in Syria and the PKK in Turkey, with whom Ankara has fought a four-decade civil war.
Throughout the Syrian war, and in particular since the US partnered with the Kurds in 2014, Turkey has been deeply wary of Kurdish postwar ambitions, and what they might mean for the 500-mile border it shares with its southern neighbour.
An emboldened Kurdish cause has been a nightmare scenario for Turkish officials, whose crackdown on the Kurds inside Syria intensified 11 months ago, when the country’s military invaded an enclave in Syria’s northwest, ousting the YPG from the town of Afrin.