ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – The United States and Turkey appear to be headed towards a showdown over Syria when America’s top diplomat visits Ankara later this week after US military personnel visited Manbij last week and the Department of Defense requested funding for Syrian operations in 2019, drawing Turkey’s ire.
“We will destroy every terrorist we have seen, starting with the ones standing by their side. Then they will understand that it is better for them to not to stand alongside the terrorists,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told his AKP parliamentary members on Tuesday, according to Hurriyet Daily News.
In the war against ISIS in northern Syria, the Kurdish YPG and the umbrella force SDF are key US allies on the ground. Ankara, however, considers these groups extensions of the PKK, a named terror organization. The clash of opinion over the Syrian Kurds has strained ties between the NATO allies.
Turkey launched its Operation Olive Branch against the Kurdish groups in the northwestern Syrian canton of Afrin and has threatened to take the fight to Manbij, where the US has troops.
The Manbij Military Council has been building up its forces in the face of Turkey’s threats. On Tuesday, it announced the completion of training of a 250-strong regiment “ready and equipped” to quickly respond to any threats.
Last week, Lt. Gen. Paul E. Funk, commander of the US-led Coalition, visited Manbij where he commented on Turkey’s threats against the town. “You hit us, we will respond aggressively. We will defend ourselves,” he said.
Erdogan hit back at Funk. “It is clear that those who say ‘we will respond aggressively if you hit us’ have never experienced an Ottoman slap,” he said.
The Ottoman slap is a bare, opened-handed potentially lethal slap to the face that was used by soldiers in the Ottoman army.
During a US Department of State press briefing, a question of whether the US had ever experienced an “Ottoman slap” drew laughs.
Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said the government is “used to” the anti-US rhetoric and they “don’t get too riled up about that.”
She reiterated that the United States understands Turkey’s legitimate security concerns, but that the escalating violence in Afrin is “one of the areas of deep, deep concern.”
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s planned visit to Turkey this week is an indication of how serious the matter is for Washington, she asserted. He will speak with Turkish officials to find a solution that will work for Turkey, people in Syria, and the US.
It appears likely, however, he may not get a warm welcome.
“They have mistaken Turkey for the kind of place where they can come and go as they please without giving an account. They will soon see that it’s not such a place,” said Erdogan.
Turkey’s indignation was stoked when the Department of Defense, in its recently published budget request for 2019, asked for $300 million for training and equipping vetted Syrian opposition forces and $250 million for “border security requirements” as part of anti-ISIS operations.
Ankara has taken this to mean $550 million to fund the YPG.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim called on the United States to “cut its support to those murders and stop giving them weapons,” referring to the Syrian Kurdish forces.
“This is a dark, dead-end-street. You still have time to correct your mistake,” he told an AKP conference, Anadolu Agency reported.
Tillerson told the coalition ministerial meeting in Kuwait that “the end of major combat operations does not mean we have achieved the enduring defeat of ISIS.”
"ISIS remains a serious threat to the stability of the region, our homelands and other parts of the globe," he said, and warned that Turkey’s operation in Afrin was pulling vital resources away from the war with ISIS.
Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch "has detracted from our fight to defeat Islamic State in eastern Syria,” Tillerson said.
The SDF are currently battling ISIS in Syria’s eastern Deir ez-Zor province.
"Forces have diverted from there to Afrin," he said. The United States is concerned about the situation in Afrin, he added, and urged everyone to remain focused on the main threat – ISIS.
He reiterated Washington’s understanding of Turkey’s security concerns and right to “counterterrorism efforts” on its border, but said US forces would remain in Syria and continue its training of the local forces.
Erdogan said that the United States can no longer use fighting ISIS as an excuse to remain the region because the terror group has been largely defeated in Syria.
“From now on, nobody has the right to use the Daesh [as an excuse],” he said, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS, according to Hurriyet Daily News. “We are now at the end of the Daesh theatre in Syria.”
Russia is also expressing doubts about the US’ goal in Syria. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in a press conference on Tuesday, said he was suspicious the United States wanted to remain in Syria for a long time, “if not forever.”
He said that ignoring Turkey’s position on the Kurdish groups is “short-sighted.”
Lavrov stressed, however, that Kurds must be included in finding a political solution to the Syrian conflict, despite Turkey’s objections.
“Without the participation of the Kurds, we will not be able to resolve the Syrian crisis definitively,” Lavrov said. The way forward is be inclusive and find a common consensus, he explained, condemning the Americans’ tendency to “unilateral steps.”
Updated at 11:39 pm