At a press conference in Ankara Tuesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed he has “confirmed evidence” that the U.S.-led coalition in the Middle East has given support to the Islamic State.
“They were accusing us of supporting Daesh,” said Erdogan, as quoted by Reuters. “Now they give support to terrorist groups including Daesh, YPG, PYD. It’s very clear. We have confirmed evidence, with pictures, photos and videos.”
“Daesh” is another name for ISIS. The YPG and PYD are Kurdish organizations in Syria – an armed militia and a political party, respectively.
Erdogan’s government is deeply opposed to the Kurds, particularly the violent PKK separatist group in Turkey, although Erdogan and his officials frequently claim the Syrian Kurds are in league with the PKK. Erdogan has strongly criticized the Obama administration for supporting the YPG in the past, describing it as support for terrorists. (The Obama administration’s position on whether the YPG is a branch of the PKK is nuanced.)
Complaining about U.S. support for the Kurds, who have long been seen as vital “boots on the ground” against ISIS for Obama in both Syria and Iraq, is nothing new, but explicitly stating the Western coalition supports ISIS is a new provocation from Erdogan.
Perhaps not coincidentally, it comes on the same day Russian warplanes reportedly provided direct support for Turkish-supported forces in Syria for the first time, and Russia denounced new U.S. rules for supporting Syrian rebel forces as a “hostile” act that could jeopardize the lives of Russian pilots.
In fact, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova specifically mentioned the possibility of advanced missiles falling into terrorist hands as one reason for blasting the Obama administration’s relaxation of limits for arming Syrian rebels:
In the administration of B. Obama they must understand that any weapons handed over will quickly end up in the hands of jihadists with whom the sham “moderate” opposition have long acted jointly.
Such a decision is a direct threat to the Russian air force, to other Russian military personnel, and to our embassy in Syria, which has come under fire more than once. We therefore view the step as a hostile one.
Zahkarova went so far as to accuse President Obama of trying to sabotage the incoming administration of his successor, President-elect Donald Trump, by stirring up trouble in Syria.
Also significant is Erdogan’s invitation on Tuesday for Saudi Arabia and Qatar, two major backers of Sunni Muslim insurgent groups in Syria, to join Syrian talks brokered by Russia, Turkey, and Iran next month. Erdogan said the Saudi and Qatari governments have lately “shown goodwill and given support” to Syria.
Taken together, the comments from Erdogan and Russia suggest a deepening relationship between Ankara and Moscow, with a deliberate effort to snub Washington and reinforce Russia’s narrative of the Syrian civil war. There was much speculation that the murder of Russian ambassador Andrey Karlov in Ankara last week would prove to be a fuse-lighting incident comparable to the assassination that touched off World War I. Instead, Turkey and Russia seem to be continuing with their rapprochement.
Turkey would once have ranked with Saudi Arabia and Qatar as a major force behind deposing dictator Bashar Assad in Syria, but it seems clear an understanding has been reached with Russia: Assad stays, while Kurds along the Syrian-Turkish border are the ones who have to go.