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US-Turkey tensions rise over Kurds

China Daily | Updated: 2019-01-16 09:54

The United States and Turkey sparred on Monday over the fate of US-allied Kurdish fighters in Syria, with Washington insisting they not be harmed and Ankara rejecting a perceived US threat to punish Turkey economically if it attacked them.

The disagreement, played out in rival tweets, is the latest consequence of US President Donald Trump's decision on Dec 19 to withdraw US troops from Syria, potentially leaving the Kurdish militia under threat as Turkey weighs a new offensive there.

US-Turkish relations have been strained by US support for the Kurdish YPG, which Turkey views as a terrorist group and an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Worker's Party (know as PKK) that has for decades waged a separatist insurgency in Turkey.

The Kurdish YPG has been a US ally in the fight against the Islamic State extremists and it controls swaths of northern Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to crush the Kurds in the wake of Trump's decision to pull troops out.

On Sunday, Trump said the US was starting the pullout of US forces that were deployed to Syria to help drive IS fighters out of the country but the US would continue to hit the militant group if need be.

"Will attack again from existing nearby base if it reforms. Will devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds. Create 20 mile (32 kilometers) safe zone. ... Likewise, do not want the Kurds to provoke Turkey," Trump said on social media.

Ankara rebuked Washington after Trump's tweet, which revived fears of a new deterioration in ties between the NATO allies.

"Terrorists can't be your partners & allies. Turkey expects the US to honor our strategic partnership and doesn't want it to be shadowed by terrorist propaganda," Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said.

'Economic devastation'

Asked what Trump meant by economic devastation, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, on a visit to Saudi Arabia, said: "You'll have to ask the president. We have applied economic sanctions in many places, I assume he is speaking about those kinds of things."

Pompeo had not yet spoken to Turkish officials about Trump's vow to "devastate Turkey economically if they hit the Kurds" as he spoke to reporters, after meeting with Saudi Arabia's king and crown prince.

Trump and Erdogan spoke on Monday in what seemed an effort to quell the dispute but Washington stuck to its emphasis on protecting the Kurds, among the most effective fighters against IS militants.

Trump and Erdogan discussed the creation of a safe zone in northern Syria cleared of militia groups, the Turkish presidency said, without providing further detail.

Both leaders emphasized the need to avoid letting anything block the planned withdrawal of US forces from Syria, Ankara added.

Late on Monday, Trump said on social media that he and Erdogan "spoke about economic development between the US & Turkey - great potential to substantially expand!"

Ankara is well aware of the cost of strained US ties. A diplomatic crisis last year, when Trump imposed sanctions on two of Erdogan's ministers and raised tariffs on Turkish metal exports, helped push the Turkish lira to a record low in August.

Trump gave no details about the safe zone proposal.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Ankara was not against the idea of a secure zone along the border, but said partners and allies should not communicate via social media.

Reuters, AFP and AP contributed to this story.

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