Wednesday 13 November 2019

Trump under fire for saying Kurdish group a bigger terror threat than Isil

Criticised: Donald Trump in the White House yesterday during a visit from Italy’s President Sergio Mattarella. Photo: Reuters
Criticised: Donald Trump in the White House yesterday during a visit from Italy’s President Sergio Mattarella. Photo: Reuters

Roland Oliphant

US President Donald Trump was accused of undermining his own diplomats when he appeared to endorse Turkey's offensive into northern Syria and compared the Kurdish groups they claim to be fighting to Isil.

Speaking as Vice-President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew into Ankara for emergency talks to persuade Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's president, to halt his offensive, Mr Trump said the Kurdish forces US troops had recently fought alongside were "no angels".

"The PKK, which is a part of the Kurds, as you know, is probably worse at terror and more of a terrorist threat in many ways than Isis," he said at the White House, using another abbreviation for Isil.

The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has fought a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state that has claimed thousands of lives. It is classified as a terrorist organisation by most Nato states.

Turkey says the YPG, the dominant Kurdish group in the militia that fought alongside US troops to defeat Isil, is an extension of the PKK. Turkey launched an offensive into Syria to crush the group after Mr Trump ordered US forces out of Syria last week.

The comments were greeted with disbelief by senior US officials.

Last night, it emerged that Mr Trump wrote to Mr Erdogan two days after ordering US troops out of northern Syria, warning him that if he invaded Syria he would be remembered as a "devil".

Mr Trump started his brief letter of October 9 suggesting they "work out a good deal".

Mr Trump told Mr Erdogan he did not want to be responsible for "slaughtering thousands of people".

And Mr Trump said he didn't want to impose sanctions that would cripple Turkey's economy if Ankara invaded Syria to battle Kurdish forces.

Mr Trump told Mr Erdogan that history would look favourably on him if he proceeded humanely.

He wrote: "It will look upon you forever as the devil if good things don't happen. Don't be a tough guy. Don't be a fool!"

Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator for South Carolina and a Trump loyalist, described yesterday's comments as "a complete and utter national security disaster in the making". He wrote on Twitter: "The statements by President Trump about Turkey's invasion being of no concern to us also completely undercut Vice President Pence and Sec. Pompeo's ability to end the conflict."

The remarks followed a day of reverses to US credibility in the Middle East that saw Mr Erdogan publicly defy US calls to halt his offensive and agree to talks with Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

In an address to Turkey's parliament later, he said: "There are some leaders who are trying to mediate... There has never been any such thing in the history of the Turkish republic as the state sitting at the same table with a terror organisation.

"Our proposal is for the terrorists to lay down their arms, leave their equipment, destroy the traps... and leave the safe zone we designated, as of tonight... If this is done, our Operation Peace Spring will end by itself."

Heavy fighting between Kurdish and Turkish-backed forces continued in the key border city of Ras al-Ain yesterday, and Kurdish officials said Turkey resumed shelling around the city of Derick.

Meanwhile, authorities in neighbouring Iraqi Kurdistan said 800 refugees had fled across the border. The UN estimates more than 160,000 people have been displaced since the Turkish offensive began.

Mr Trump's withdrawal from Syria has upended the geopolitical balance in the region, leaving Russia as the undisputed power-broker in Syria and poised to fill a power vacuum left by the US across the Middle East.

The formerly US-allied Kurdish leadership announced they had agreed to align with Russia and the Syrian government in a bid to halt the attack.

Syrian government troops and Russian forces started patrols in areas abandoned by US forces on Tuesday. Yesterday they entered Kobani, the strategic border town where Kurdish and US forces first defeated Isil in 2015.

Conflict

The Kremlin said Mr Erdogan accepted an invitation to Moscow in the coming days during a phone call with Mr Putin on Tuesday night.

The two presidents discussed the need to "prevent conflict between units of the Turkish army and Syrian government armed forces", it said in a readout on its website.

It said Mr Putin also warned Mr Erdogan it would be "unacceptable" to allow Isil prisoners held by the Kurds to exploit the chaos unfolding on the ground.

Mr Trump defended his decision yesterday, saying: "I view the situation on the Turkish border with Syria to be, for the US, strategically brilliant.

"Turkey has gone into Syria. If Turkey goes into Syria, that's between Turkey and Syria - it's not between Turkey and the United States, like a lot of stupid people would like you to believe."

The United States imposed sanctions, including a steel tariff, on Turkey on Monday, and congressional leaders have called on Mr Trump to impose harsher measures.

© Daily Telegraph London

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