Turkey and the U.S., Ankara’s biggest ally in the Western defense organization NATO, are embroiled in a new row over the Syrian civil war and are publically accusing each other of helping terrorists.
The row started when Brett McGurk, U.S. President Donald Trump’s special envoy to the Global Coalition to Counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), or DAESH, accused Turkey of assisting al-Qaeda in Syria at a conference in the Washington-based Middle East Institute on July 29.
McGurk said the following:
* “The region of Idlib [a northwestern Syrian town near the Turkish border] became the biggest safe have for al-Qaeda since the Sept. 11 attacks. This is a very serious problem and it has continued for some time … How and why it is possible that the deputy of Ayman al-Zawahiri [the leader of al-Qaeda] can go to Idlib? Why is this happening? How can they reach there?”
* “The approach by some of our partners to send tens of thousands and tons of weapons there, and looking the other way while foreign fighters go into Syria may not be the best approach. Al-Qaeda
has taken full advantage and Idlib is now a huge problem.”
* “Right now, there is a safe haven for al-Qaeda just next to the Turkish border. So of course we are going to discuss this subject with the Turks. In some other areas the borders have been sealed and nobody has been able to cross, and we need to think of doing the same thing in Idlib.”
Before McGurk got to discuss the issue with Turkish officials, Foreign Ministry Deputy Undersecretary Sedat Önal apparently phoned him on July 30. In the conversation Önal conveyed Turkey’s unease and asked the U.S. envoy to “correct” his statements “if he was not aiming for any provocation.” Foreign Ministry sources say Önal warned McGurk that these kinds of statements could harm the grounds of cooperation between the U.S. and Turkey at a time when the “U.S. administration is seeking cooperation with Ankara” for the post-ISIL period in Syria. The Turkish diplomat reportedly told McGurk that “before implying Turkey supports terror, the U.S. should face the fact that it is supporting a terrorist organization in Syria and presenting members of the YPG as heroes.”
McGurk was also strongly protested in a statement by Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hüseyin Müftüoğlu.
Turkey has long been objecting to cooperation between the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which the former relies on as ground units against ISIL. The YPG is the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party
(PKK), which has been fighting with Turkey for the last three decades and is also designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. President Tayyip Erdoğan first made that point to Barack Obama and then to Trump, but with no result.
Turkey is actually a member of the international coalition against ISIL and has opened its strategic İncirlik air base. It also has military officers in the command and control center in Qatar, along with ongoing cooperation between the intelligence services of the two countries, the CIA
and the MİT. The transfer of weaponry to “rebel forces” in Syria through Turkey was conducted with the participation of almost all coalition partners until President Trump stated on July 19 that “the CIA’s arms support to Syria rebels” had stopped. The question is why McGurk waited for so long to reveal the dirty laundry of its ally, as the transfer of tens and thousands of weapons and the sneaking of al-Qaeda leaders into Idlib probably has not taken place only since July 19.
Another possibility is that the YPG/PKK forces around Idlib are not having a great time and are likely to complain - if not blackmail CENTCOM - that under the circumstances it will be hard for them to focus on the fight against ISIL in Raqqa.
The row between the two NATO
allies over support for terrorism is taking place at a time when U.S.-Russia relations have been rapidly deteriorating amid continued American
sanctions on Russia. In a Russian
statement, cooperation in Syria was mentioned like a warning from Vladimir Putin to Trump that this could be damaged too.
McGurk’s claims are serious ones and have to be proven. If not, they are only likely to further harm the already shaken relations between Turkey and the U.S.