Ankara further toughened its language against the U.S. on Feb. 13, ahead of key meetings in Brussels and Ankara between senior Turkish and American officials.
Speaking at parliament on Feb. 13, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan slammed the U.S.’s continued cooperation with the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and a senior U.S. military official who vowed to respond to any Turkish attack in Manbij.
“It is clear that those who say ‘we will respond aggressively if you hit us’ have never experienced an Ottoman slap,” Erdoğan told his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) deputies in parliament.
His remarks came before a crucial visit to Turkey from U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Feb. 15-16, during which the two sides will bid to salvage ties.
“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,” Erdoğan said.
“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,” he added.
Erdoğan stated that Washington’s recent decision to continue funding the YPG militia will “affect Turkey’s decisions.” He suggested that although initial aid figures are estimated at $550 million, “information obtained by Ankara” indicates that this financial support “could increase to $3 billion.”
His comments followed the release of the U.S. Department of Defense’s 2019 budget, which included more funds reserved for training and equipping local forces in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria. The Pentagon requested $300 million for Syrian “train and equip activities” and $250 million for border security requirements, according to a copy of the budget. While it did not specify how much of this, if any, was earmarked for YPG-led forces, Turkish media interpreted that as meaning that the Pentagon had allocated $550 million to the YPG in 2019.
Washington says it has no plans to withdraw its soldiers from Manbij and two U.S. commanders visited the town last week to reinforce that message. Erdoğan’s remarks were an apparent reference to comments made by U.S. Lieutenant General Paul Funk during the visit to Manbij, in which he said: “You hit us, we will respond aggressively. We will defend ourselves.”
The two U.S. generals’ trip was the first by such senior United States military officers to the front in northern Syria since Erdoğan threatened to attack Manbij.
Erdoğan noted that both Turkey and the U.S. are members of NATO, saying Washington has to abide by the alliance’s obligations as much as Turkey.
“The U.S. has to respond to any attack on its ally in the event of an attack by a terror organization,” he said, referring to the YPG.
Erdoğan also questioned the U.S. struggle against the ISIL, asking: “How many Deash members have you killed?”
“We know who is hand-in-hand with who in this region. From now on, nobody has right to use the Deash [as an excuse]. They are acting with Deash. But we are now at end of the Deash theater in Syria,” he said.
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu again stressed that Turkey has “lost confidence” in the U.S., saying Ankara wants “action on the ground” rather than words. Speaking in a televised interview on Feb. 13, Çavuşoğlu complained about “different attitudes” in the State Department and the Pentagon.
“Words are not enough to fool us,” he said, adding that Washington “should meet three demands” of Turkey if it sees Ankara as a real ally. He listed these demands as follows: Stop giving arms to the YPG and collect back already delivered weapons; making the Syrian Kurdish militia retreat from west of the Euphrates; and taking concrete legal steps against Pennsylvania-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen.
Turkey has been enraged by U.S. support for the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which Ankara sees as a terrorist group and an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Turkey last month launched an incursion into Syria, which it calls “Operation Olive Branch,” to sweep the YPG from its southern border. It has also threatened to press on to the Syrian town of Manbij – currently under the control of an YPG-led force – and has warned American troops stationed there not to get in the way.