President Donald Trump is threatening Turkey with harsh economic sanctions if it attacks Kurdish forces in Syria. This comes a few days after US troops started to withdraw. Trump sent a tweet saying that he will “devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds” and added that the Kurds should not “provoke Turkey.” This was probably the first time that Trump publicly threatens Turkey, a NATO ally and one of the key players so far in the Syrian conflict.
The Kurds are a band of American-backed fighters in Syria but Turkey sees them as a terrorist threat. Ankara has blamed the group for a number of high profile bombings in Turkey over the last few years too. The surprising announcement by Trump days ago that US forces will be pulling out of Syria appeared to put the Kurds in a state of confusion. The fighters allied to the US will now get this blanket protection from the US although it’s not clear how the White House intends to enforce this.
The president’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria was sharply criticized by lawmakers and it led to the resignation of defense secretary James Mattis. US Foreign Secretary Mike Pompeo was also negotiating a deal with Turkey on how Kurdish forces can be protected in Syria once US troops are out. The meetings had been going on over the weekend and there was a lot of optimism that a deal was close. Foreign policy experts think that the threat by the president could undermine any chance that these talks had of success.
In response to the tweet, a spokesman for the Turkish president reiterated that Kurds will remain a terror threat to Ankara and that’s how the government there will continue to view the fighters. The spokesman also called on Trump to honor the “strategic partnerships” that the two countries have enjoyed over the years. Turkey has said that it’s planning a major assault against Islamic State Militants in Syria as well as Kurdish forces.
Despite the decision by the US to withdraw troops from Syria, there’s already a plan to have special troops stationed in a nearby base in Iraq. Trump suggested that the troops will remain in place and ready to strike in case ISIS reappears in Syria. The withdrawal of US troops from Syria has brought a sharp focus on the kind of relationship that the president has with his security team. In his initial announcement, Trump ordered the troops to withdraw from Syria within thirty days. This later changed after he was confronted by backlash from all quarters. Eventually, the president agreed to a gradual withdrawal that would take four months. There are also reports indicating that the withdrawal of US troops has begun.
Turkey has already suffered the brunt of US sanctions recently after it held the American pastor Andrew Brunson. The pastor was held by the Erdogan government for months in Turkey. The incident led to a massive diplomatic rift between the two countries. Later, Brunson was released signaling an easing of ties between Washington and Ankara but this latest threat by Trump could put everything on a knife’s edge.