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American Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is expecting an extremely difficult confrontation with NATO ally Turkey, where President Recep Erdogan has increased his Anti-American rhetoric, essentially threatening US troops in Syria. The Turkish government roundly hates the Kurds, and fears that the American aid to the ones in Syria will result in their helping Turkish Kurds push for their own independence.
Erdogan is reported giving a strong threat:
It is clear that those who say, ‘We will respond aggressively if you hit us,’ have never experienced an Ottoman slap.
Turkey is an American ally through common membership in NATO, but recently the country has been quite belligerent towards Americans. The leadership of Turkey has of late accused the USA of complicity in a coup attempts, they have jailed Americans in the country on shady grounds and detained US Consulate workers, as well as eroded democratic norms within Turkey itself.
The most recent threat from Erdogan has been directed at the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in Northwest Syria, where such attacks could undermine the coalition fight against Islamic State forces in the region. While Turkey claims to be fighting ISIS forces, they have been locked in a bitter conflict with the Kurds in this region for decades, with a running total of some 40,000 lives lost in this conflict. For Turkey, any enemy of Kurds is a friend to them, so they have allowed jihadist fighters, likely ISIS, to cross Turkish borders because they will attack Kurds. Turkey defines all Kurdish organizations as terrorist, but the USA has thrown its support behind one of them, the Democratic Union Party and its People’s Protection Units (YPG, for Yekîneyên Parastina Gel). The disagreement regarding the status of this group, and the USA’s support of it, has Erdogan enraged.
This brings the possibility of an intra-NATO conflict very close. It has not happened since 1974, when the Greeks and Turkish forces spoiled over Cyprus. However, this conflict in Syria, with its multiplicity of Turkish, American, Syrian, ISIS, Russian and now Israeli forces, plus all the warring factions in the region – this is a huge mess. Most of the world’s great powers have a hand in this, and the nasty politics of doing a proxy war are most particularly not working well for the United States, who was neither invited nor wanted in the region.
The Turkish government has made their intentions clear:
“’Operation Olive Branch’ will continue until it reaches its goals. We will rid Manbij of terrorists, as was promised to us before. Our battles will continue until no terrorist is left right up to our border with Iraq,” Erdoğan said in an address to ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) colleagues in Ankara on Jan. 26.
The American forces have reported taking fire from Turkish-backed rebels in the area near Manbij, and that they have returned fire on occasion as well.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has a tough set of meetings before him in Ankara. His statement is level and cool, but it may not assuage Erdogan very much:
Turkey is still an important NATO ally of the United States, they’re still a very important partner in the region for us, and we need to find a way to continue to work in the same direction… So we hope to have talks about how we can work cooperatively to lessen those threats to Turkey but ultimately achieve the objective in Syria, which is the full and enduring defeat of ISIS, the de-escalation of violence in Syria.
There is definitely a big mess here.