Trump Warns Turkey Against Military Strikes on Kurdish Militants in Syria

Turkish tanks stationed near the Syrian border on Wednesday.
Ozan Kose/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Simmering tensions between Turkey and the United States spilled into the open on Wednesday as President Trump warned President Recep Tayyip Erdogan against the growing risk of conflict between the two nations. The Turkish president, for his part, demanded that the United States end its support for Kurdish militias.

The two men, both populists and unapologetic nationalists, spoke by telephone as Turkish forces attacked Kurdish militias in Syria. American officials said they were increasingly uneasy that the campaign against the Islamic State would be seriously undermined by the newest battlefront in a country that has been ravaged by war for nearly seven years.

Mr. Trump “urged Turkey to exercise caution and to avoid any actions that might risk conflict between Turkish and American forces,” the White House said in a description of the call. “He reiterated that both nations must focus all parties on the shared goal of achieving the lasting defeat of ISIS,” or the Islamic State.

His tough tone with Mr. Erdogan was an abrupt reversal from a White House briefing just a day earlier, where senior administration officials suggested that the United States would side with Turkey, a NATO ally, in disputes with Kurdish forces that have fought the Islamic State with direct support from Washington.

Turkey has fought for decades against Kurdish insurgent groups that Ankara considers terrorist threats. Kurds in the region — most notably in Turkey, Iraq and Syria — dream of creating an independent state even as they seek greater political and cultural rights.

In a speech on Wednesday, Mr. Erdogan said there was no difference between the Islamic State and Kurdish militias, and questioned “the humanity of those who accuse Turkey of being an invader and support an organization that has the blood of tens of thousands of innocent children, women, elderly people and innocents on its hands.”

The shift in tone at the White House grew out of what officials described on Wednesday as frustration over months of failed efforts to mollify Mr. Erdogan, including changes in military strategy and reassurances about Kurdish intentions on the battlefield. And it marked the end of a year of wooing of Mr. Erdogan, whom Mr. Trump has repeatedly praised despite the Turkish leader’s authoritarian crackdown at home.

In Syria, a Turkish warplane launched a shell that fell near the northern city of Manbij, where United States troops have been training and equipping Kurdish forces that are holding the strategic city. American officials are increasingly worried that a wide-scale attack on Manbij would bring troops from the United States and Turkey into direct conflict.

“The shell fell in an empty place. It didn’t cause any damage,” said Sherfan Darwish, a spokesman for the Manbij Military Council. “In general, the fronts are quiet.”

The main brunt of an ongoing Turkish attack targeted the Syrian border town of Afrin, which is controlled by Kurdish forces. The United Nations said the recent fighting had displaced at least 5,000 people in and around the Afrin district. Of the area’s 323,000 residents, only some of whom are Kurds, more than a third have been displaced from elsewhere in Syria.

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SOURCE: New York Times, Gardiner Harris