Sen. Lindsey Graham Meets with Erdogan to Discuss Syrian Kurds

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, and U.S. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham shake hands before a meeting in Ankara, Turkey, Friday, Jan. 18, 2019. Erdogan and Graham has discussed the situation in Syria as the United States prepares to withdraw troops.(Presidential Press Service via AP, Pool)
Presidential Press Service via AP, Pool

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara on Friday in what Graham described as an effort to defuse tensions between Turkey and the United States regarding the Syrian Kurds.

Graham said on Saturday that he understands Turkey’s security concerns in Syria, and he questioned the wisdom of withdrawing U.S. troops because “the goal of destroying ISIS is not yet accomplished.”

“I can understand the desire to withdraw, but withdrawal without a plan is chaos. It would be Iraq on steroids,” Graham warned on Saturday.

The New York Times (NYT) portrayed Graham’s visit as an effort to patch things up with Ankara after White House National Security Adviser John Bolton infuriated the Turks by demanding protection for Kurdish forces in Syria. Bolton was sympathetic to the Syrian Kurds, a vital battlefield ally of the United States in the war against the Islamic State. Turkey sees the most powerful Syrian Kurdish militia forces as linked to the PKK, the violent Kurdish separatist organization in Turkey.

Graham sought a middle ground, citing his own longstanding concerns that at least some of the armed Kurdish groups in Syria have ties to the PKK and can reasonably be viewed as security threats by the Turks. Turkish officials have criticized the United States for not removing Kurdish forces from the security buffer zone Turkey wishes to establish near its border.

The NYT said Erdogan’s administration was pleased by Graham’s visit because he is seen as close to President Donald Trump and influential as a veteran senator with important committee positions.

In theory, Turkey wants to see American troops withdraw from Syria while Graham wants them to stay, but this apparent conflict of interest is resolved by Turkey’s interest in getting Kurdish fighters out of the border region. In short, the Turks want American troops to stick around long enough to escort the Kurds out of key cities like Manbij.

Erdogan was pleased enough by his meeting with Graham to invite the visiting senator to a performance by famed pianist Fazil Say, a friendly gesture Turkish media deem highly significant. Hurriyet Daily News applauded what it heard Graham saying about the Kurds:

Graham’s messages on the YPG’s integrated links with the PKK and that the U.S. had created a nightmare for Turkey by choosing the YPG as its main partner in the fight against ISIL were welcomed by the media and the public opinion here.

Third is about the conciliatory tone Graham used when he was assuring Turkey that a proposed safe zone will protect the Turkish borders and citizens from terrorists but at the same time that the U.S. will disallow any military action against the partners in the field against ISIL.

Plus, he was very clear that the U.S. should no longer delay the implementation of the Manbij road map and therefore the withdrawal of the YPG from this Arab city.

He used a similar narrative with Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, who has long been urging the U.S. that a smooth implementation of the road map in Manbij would have reflections in other parts of Syria, particularly in the east of River Euphrates.

“East of River Euphrates” is where many American and European policymakers are worried Turkey is headed in its quest to drive Kurdish forces away from the border. Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said on Monday that “plans, preparations, and logistics are completed” for a major operation against the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia in Manbij and points east.

Akar met with Sen. Graham on Friday and accused the United States of betraying its promises to push the Kurds back from the border.

“The promises made in Manbij weren’t kept, the YPG and PKK are two sides of the same coin, and Turkey is fighting PKK/YPG, Daesh and FETO terror groups,” Akar reportedly told Graham. Daesh is another term for ISIS, while FETO is the Erdogan administration’s name for the followers of Fethullah Gulen, the exiled cleric accused of masterminding a coup attempt against Erdogan in the summer of 2016.

Graham also pleased Erdogan by stating the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), must be “dealt with” for his role in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

Graham said MBS’s leadership has been “unnerving to say the least,” arguing the murder of Khashoggi was one way MBS “violat[ed] every norm of international behavior.”

Erdogan and his officials were infuriated by the killing of Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and have been highly critical of the Saudi investigation.       


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