President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has once again underlined that Turkey considers Kurds as friends and emphasized that an ethnicity cannot be equated to a terrorist organization such as the PKK and its affiliate the People's Protection Units (YPG) — a sentiment also reiterated by many Turkish authorities following Donald Trump's explosive late night tweet threatening Ankara over a dispute on U.S. forces' withdrawal from Syria.
The row between Ankara and Washington seemed to abate after Erdoğan held a phone call with his U.S. counterpart Trump late Monday to discuss bilateral issues, including their "ongoing cooperation" in Syria as U.S. forces begin to withdraw from the area.
Erdoğan welcomed the U.S.' decision to withdraw, saying Ankara was ready to provide all kinds of support, while Trump expressed his desire to work together to address Turkey's security concerns in northeast Syria.
The phone call came after hostile comments from Trump threatening Turkey with an economic war over its insistence to sweep away the PKK, which drew a sharp and immediate rebuke from Ankara with officials underlining that the country won't be intimidated by Washington's threats and will continue to take necessary measures against the terrorist threats in Syria.
"We have said this over and over again that Turkey will not be intimidated by threats," Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said Monday in a press conference with his counterpart Jean Asselborn, Luxembourg's foreign minister, just hours after Trump's tweet. He added that the U.S. should seek a solution rather than threaten Ankara as "threatening Turkey economically will get you nowhere."
Trump had said on Twitter that the U.S. was starting a "long overdue" pullout from Syria and Washington would strike from a nearby existing base if Daesh started to re-emerge. Trump went as far as saying that Washington would "economically devastate" Turkey if Ankara decided to strike against the militants of the U.S.-backed YPG. Officials in the Ankara government, including President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, have long been criticizing Washington's stance of equating Kurdish people living in northern Syria with the YPG terrorists, emphasizing that Turkey is only fighting against PKK terrorists and their extensions in Syria.
'Turkey protector of Kurds'
In his phone call with Trump, Erdoğan reiterated that Turkey had no issue with Kurds and its only aim was to fight terror groups threatening its national security.
Speaking on the same lines, Presidency Communications Director Fahrettin Altun had said earlier in the day that Turkey's problem was with the PKK terrorist organization and its Syrian extensions, not Kurds.
"Turkey is not the enemy but the protector of the Kurds," Altun said, adding that the country will continue to fight YPG terrorists in a determined manner.
Also speaking on the issue, Presidential Spokesperson İbrahim Kalın stressed that it is a "fatal mistake" to equate Syrian Kurds with PKK terrorists.
"Turkey fights against terrorists, not Kurds. We will protect Kurds and other Syrians against all terrorist threats," Kalın said in a tweet, adding that, "Turkey expects the U.S. to honor our strategic partnership and doesn't want it to be shadowed by terrorist propaganda."
Ankara has been infuriated by the U.S. support for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is dominated by the YPG, under the pretext of fighting against Daesh. The U.S. provided military training and supplied truckloads of weapons to the YPG, disregarding warnings from Ankara that the YPG is organically linked to the PKK, and partnering with one terrorist group to fight another was not acceptable.
Turkey says the weapons are ultimately transferred to the PKK and used against Turkey. Çetiner Çetin, an Ankara-based journalist who focuses on the developments in the region, recently told Daily Sabah that Turkey's concerns over a terror corridor forming on its Syrian border could be seen as Ankara being against the Kurds in the region.
"However, history proves otherwise," he said, pointing to various occasions when Turkey opened its doors to oppressed Kurds, including after the Halabja chemical attack by Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 1988, and during the siege of Kobani city in northern Syria by Daesh in 2014, when some 300,000 Kurds fled to Turkey and from the country.
Meanwhile, Ömer Çelik, spokesman of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), said Turkey is a friend that stands by oppressed people, including people in northern Syria under the YPG terrorists' thumb.
"The Republic of Turkey is a unique friend for those who seek it. It is a unique, giving friend that will never let down its friends or put its friends in a difficult situation," he said.
Ankara resolute on operation no matter what U.S. says
Turkey has long signaled an operation in the YPG-held areas east of the Euphrates, as it sees the presence of the U.S.-backed group as a threat to its national security.
"We do not seek permission from anyone. We will take the necessary steps against terrorists near our borders, and we will decide the timing on our own," Çavuşoğlu said late Saturday at a meeting in southern Antalya province. Oytun Orhan, a Syria expert, told Daily Sabah that Turkey must immediately fill the vacuum when the U.S. withdraws its troops to fend off security threats that may lurk in its borders with new scenarios in the region, such as an alliance between the YPG and the Bashar Assad regime.
The power vacuum following the Syrian regime's withdrawal in 2012 gave the YPG an opportunity to practically apply its form of governance and form communes, as dictated by its ideology. The terrorist organization tightened its grip on northern and eastern Syrian territories with the U.S. support by establishing nine committees, similar to ministries, for various roles.
The YPG's ultimate goal is to establish an autonomous region in northern Syria by connecting the northwestern Afrin canton to the Kobani and Jazeera cantons in the northeast, posing a threat to Turkey's border security. As such, Turkey's operation aims to put an end to the group's autonomy plans, which Ankara terms a "terror corridor."
Trump's aim to stave off domestic criticism
Turkish officials and some experts also drew attention to heavy pressure on U.S. president emerged after his announcement of Syria withdrawal as the possible reason behind Trump's harsh words on Turkey.
Çavuşoğlu said that there is a serious pressure on Trump as security officials of the U.S. are not eager on withdrawal from Syria.
"We know his last words were a message for internal politics," he said.
On Dec. 19, 2018, Trump declared absolute victory over Daesh and publicly disclosed the withdrawal of American troops from Syria, which were initially sent there to fight against Daesh via the Global Coalition against the terrorist organization.
He later said that the U.S. would get out of Syria "over a period of time," emphasizing that he did not specify any time frame as mentioned in several media outlets, including The New York Times, which claimed in an article that the U.S. withdrawal will be completed in four months.
Speaking on the issue, Cengiz Tomar, the chancellor of Ahmet Yesevi University, said that Trump's sudden withdrawal decision has drawn criticism within the U.S as many accused him of abandoning the YPG. "Therefore, now Trump is trying to save time with these statements, aiming to prove to his critiques that he is not leaving any one of its partners, but only leaving Syria," Tomar added. The Turkish foreign minister also drew attention the way and timing of Trump's tweet threatening Turkey with destroying its economy, which was sent at 2 a.m. local time.
"Strategic partners would not communicate through social media," Çavuşoğlu said.
"A terror-free safe zone"
In their phone call Monday evening, Trump and Erdoğan also discussed the establishment of a secure zone in northern Syria cleared of militia groups, emphasizing that the allies must avoid giving any opportunity to elements seeking to block the planned withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria.
In his tweet in the early hours of the morning, Trump had warned the YPG not to provoke Ankara and proposed a 20-mile safe zone.
Turkey has long called on the U.S. and the international community to support the establishment of a safe zone in northern Syria but drew little support. Erdoğan previously suggested that a safe zone of 30-40 kilometers could be established between northern Syria's Jarablus and al-Rai towns. He had said that the safe zone would also function as a no-fly zone, and could be a convenient area to host Syrian refugees with new housing projects.
After its concerns were ignored, Ankara launched two cross-border operations in Syria, Operation Euphrates Shield and Operation Olive Branch, to eliminate threats posed to its national security.