The United States on Monday sought to defuse a furious diplomatic row with NATO ally Turkey by saying it now accepts Ankara’s claim that Kurdish “terrorists” executed 13 Turks in Iraq, although Turkish opposition parties have critised the government’s tactics in the failed military operation to rescue the prisoners.
U.S. President Joe Biden has not yet spoken to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to clarify U.S. stances on Turkish policies at home and abroad. But the incident has delivered an early test to Washington’s relations with Ankara.
Over the weekend, Turkish troops found the bodies of the 13 Turkish soldiers, police and civilians abducted by Kurdish insurgents in a cave complex in northern Iraq. The victims were discovered in the Gara region near the Turkish border during an operation against the PKK that had aimed to free the hostages. Twelve of the victims were shot in the head and one died of a shoulder bullet wound. The 13 were kidnapped inside Turkey in 2015 and 2016.
Erdoğan had lashed out at the State Department’s initial hesitance to blame the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) for the deaths.
Both sides view the PKK as a terrorist organisation but the United States also backs a Kurdish militia in neighbouring Syria in the conflict against President Bashar Assad.
Ankara on Sunday accused the PKK of “executing” the hostages — most of them soldiers and police abducted in Turkey and kept in a cave in nothern Iraq– as Turkish forces advanced in a rescue operation launched last week.
The PKK blamed Turkish air strikes for the deaths.
The U.S. State Department then fuelled Turkish ire by saying on Sunday that Washington “deplores the death of Turkish citizens” but was waiting for further confirmation of Ankara’s version of events.
Erdoğan then branded Washington’s response “a farce.”
“You said you did not support terrorists, when in fact you are on their side and behind them,” he said in televised remarks.
The Turkish foreign ministry later summoned U.S. Ambassador David Satterfield to convey Ankara’s displeasure “in the strongest possible terms.”
Washington issued a new statement after Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavusoğlu held his first official phone call on Monday with Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said Blinken expressed condolences for the deaths of the hostages and “affirmed our view that PKK terrorists bear responsibility.” Blinken also emphasised their shared interest in countering terrorism.
He also “emphasized the longstanding importance of the U.S.-Turkish bilateral relationship” and “our shared interest in countering terrorism.”
Price said Blinken also urged Turkey “not to retain the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system.”
The New York Times reported that Turkey’s opposition parties have “questioned why the government had failed to negotiate the men’s release and had risked a military operation to rescue them.”
For Ankara, the time might be also opportune to tap into anti-Kurdish sentiment to further crackdown on pro-Kurdish formations.
The sentiment has to do with the long history of violence against the Turkish state. The PKK militants have been waging an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984 that is thought to have left tens of thousands dead.
A breakdown in peace talks between the PKK and Ankara in 2015 was followed by Turkish military campaigns against the militants across the region and mass arrests of pro-Kurdish politicians and officials in Turkey.
The Turkish interior ministry said on Monday that it had detained 718 people — including the heads of pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) — across the country in a series of coordinated raids.
The HDP is Turkey’s second-largest opposition party. It denies all formal links to the PKK but also questions Turkey’s account of the 13 deaths.
We “express our deepest regret and condolences to the families and loved ones of those 13 people who by no means were capable of protecting themselves against an armed attack,” the HDP said in a statement on Sunday.
Pro-government formations have suggested banning such parties as the HDP.
The incident threatens to escalate tensions across Iraq and Syria while delivering an early test to Erdoğan’s relations with Biden.
Turkey has long accused the Iraqi government of being too tolerant of the PKK.
Ankara also wants Washington to renounce the Kurdish militia in Syria because of its alleged links to the PKK.
It instead wants Washington to reaffirm its support for Turkey’s anti-terror campaign.
Erdoğan said Turkey’s NATO allies had to pick sides.
“If we are going to be in NATO together, you should be sincere. You should not be on the terrorists’ side,” Erdoğan said.
“After this, there are two options. Either act with Turkey with no ifs or buts, without questioning, or they will be a partner to every murder and bloodshed,” he said.
“The terrorist organisation on our doorstep, on our borders, is killing innocents.”
Erdoğan is still waiting for a phone call from Biden that could help set the tone for future U.S.-Turkish ties.
(A version of this article was originally published by The Arab Weekly and reproduced by permission.)