ERBIL, Kurdistan Region (Kurdistan24) - A recent statement by the top United States diplomat in charge of fighting the Islamic State group (IS), Brett McGurk in which he associated Turkey with a robust al-Qaeda presence in Syria drew Ankara's protest on Sunday.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry described the US Special Presidential Envoy to the Global Coalition to Counter IS's remarks as "provocative" in a press release.
"Idlib Province is the largest al-Qaeda safe haven since 9/11 ties directly to Ayman al-Zawahiri. This a huge problem," McGurk said last Thursday at a Washington DC panel, before pointing the finger at the NATO ally.
Al-Qaeda's Syrian franchise - al-Nusra Front - controls much of the northwestern province of Idlib on the Turkish border since President Bashar al Assad's regime lost the area to the Islamist opposition groups.
"But we have to ask a question; why and how is Ayman al-Zawahiri's deputy finding his way to Idlib Province. Why is this happening? How are they getting there? They are not paratroopers," asked McGurk at the event organized by the DC think tank Middle East Institute.
A spokesperson for the Turkish Foreign Ministry said his country's reaction was "brought to Mr. McGurk’s attention at a high-level démarche," adding the Turkish Embassy in Washington would separately relay the same message to US authorities.
"The approach by some of our partners to send in tens of thousands of tons of weapons, and look the other way as these foreign fighters come into Syria may not have been the best approach," McGurk continued. He added that al-Zawahiri's al-Qaeda has taken "full advantage" of Turkey's turning a blind eye.
"Idlib is a huge problem. It's an al-Qaeda safe haven right at the border with Turkey. That is something obviously we will be in very close discussion with Turks on," McGurk said.
In response, the Turkish ministry recalled US support for the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) which Ankara views as a "terrorist" group for its controversial ties with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a guerrilla group which is currently fighting Turkey for larger Kurdish rights.
The ministry said Turkey expected the US to halt its ongoing military backing of the YPG which is spearheading the current operation to retake the IS capital of Raqqa in central Syria.
The Turkish government has previously accused McGurk of harboring pro-Kurdish sympathies, calling on the still green administration of President Donald Trump to replace him.
Editing by G.H. Renaud