Turkey has moved to ease tensions with the US ahead of a visit by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Washington next week, by toning down its criticism of Donald Trump’s policy on Syria.
Ankara strongly objected to a US decision to directly arm Syrian Kurds who are regarded by Turkey as a threat to its security.
But, in an interview with the Financial Times, Binali Yildirim, prime minister, indicated that Turkey had been reassured by James Mattis, US defence secretary, whom he met in London on Thursday.
“Turkey’s concerns are understood but on the ground this was a tactical alliance and they had no choice,” said Mr Yildirim, referring to the US argument that the Syrian Kurds — which Turkey regards as a terrorist group on its border — will be vital in the battle to capture Isis’s northern Syria heartland of Raqqa.
“The defence secretary on numerous occasions made very, very clear, an unequivocal commitment that they would never allow those weapons to be turned against Turkey,” he added.
Syrian Kurdish officials have for years pushed for military support and political recognition. But Ankara has long campaigned against any such move, since the Syrian Kurds’ sister organisation, the Kurdistan Workers’ party, or PKK, is proscribed as a terrorist group in the US and the EU and has fought Turkey for three decades in a conflict in which more than 40,000 people have died.
In what also appeared to be a conciliatory gesture to the US, the Turkish prime minister suggested that the Trump administration’s decision was largely legalistic rather than military.
“We believe that those heavy weapons were already on the ground in Syria, but they needed a mandate to use those weapons during the siege of Raqqa,” he said. The US has long seen the Syrian Kurds as the most effective fighting force against Isis in the country.
Mr Yildirim had warned before his meeting with Mr Mattis that if Washington did not “take Turkey’s sensitivities into consideration . . . a negative outcome will also emerge for the US”.
But, speaking to the FT, he suggested that he was referring to the consequences for the US’s reputation and not any retaliatory move by Ankara.
“The perception that a Nato ally is engaged knowingly with a terrorist network, that on its own has negative consequences,” Mr Yildirim said, referring to the Syrian Kurdish militants.
“I feel that during President’s Erdogan’s visit [to Washington] many of these issues will be better understood, messages will be better conveyed.”
Mr Yildirim added that Turkey — which depicts itself as a dependable partner in Syria — had killed 2,500 Isis militants and helped 50,000-60,000 Syrian refugees to return home. “Turkey has already proven its record. It has boots on the ground and is combating Daesh very effectively,” he said, referring to Isis by an Arabic acronym.
Some analysts argue that Turkey has known for weeks that the US was likely to arm the Kurds — and that the timing of this week’s announcement was convenient for Mr Erdogan, coming after a high-stakes referendum to boost his powers but before his Washington visit.
Nevertheless, Mr Yildirim criticised the US’s policy on Syria, which he presented as tactical rather than strategic. “We’ve been trying to explain this,” he said, adding that the US’s position had changed little since the presidency of Barack Obama.
“What is unfortunate that this tactical plan doesn’t even belong to this administration; it dates back to the previous administration.”
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