Erdogan challenges US on northeast Syria, Israel
WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – Speaking Tuesday at the opening of the UN General Assembly, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed positions at sharp odds with the United States, above all on issues regarding northeast Syria and Israel.
As recently as Saturday, before leaving for the US, Erdogan publicly stated that he would meet with US President Donald Trump in New York. Erdogan said that he intended, above all, to discuss Syria and “the support it has given terrorist organizations.”
But as of Tuesday night, no such meeting had occurred, and none was on the list of meetings Trump is slated to have in New York, as detailed earlier this week by White House aides. It thus appears that Erdogan will not see Trump on this visit.
Trump, however, did meet with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a Middle Eastern rival to Erdogan, as well as with the Kurdish President of Iraq, Barham Salih.
Indeed, Erdogan was slated to sit at Trump’s table for lunch on Tuesday, but when he saw Sisi was also seated there, he moved to another table, the Turkish press reported.
Erdogan’s speech to the General Assembly, delivered on Tuesday shortly before lunch, was particularly challenging to the US position in the Middle East.
Erdogan likened the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), who lead the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), America’s main partner in the fight against the so-called Islamic State in Syria, to the Islamic State itself: both are equally terrorist organizations, according to the Turkish president, who considers the YPG as the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Addressing the General Assembly, Erdogan called for “the elimination of the PKK-YPG terrorist structure, east of the Euphrates,” as he affirmed, “we intend to establish initially a peace corridor with a depth of 30 kilometers and a length of 480 kilometers,” which will “enable the settlement of two million Syrians,” who are now refugees in Turkey.
Erdogan even suggested that extending the area further south would allow for the settlement of three million Syrians—and relieve immigration pressures on Europe, as well.
“As we have determined on this matter, we have already started necessary preparations,” Erdogan concluded, hinting that if his demands were not met, he was prepared to attack.
Responding to Erdogan’s speech, Riyadh Derrar, co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the political arm of the SDF, advised Kurdistan 24 that the talk was an attempt to “blackmail” Europe.
Moreover, Derrar suggested that Turkey’s involvement was unnecessary for resettling refugees.
“We (the self-administration in northeastern Syria) can do that,” Derrar said. “We can take back Syrians who are originally from the area east of the Euphrates without conditions,” while “Syrians from other regions can come under certain conditions, until a peaceful settlement is achieved.”
Derrar added that the SDC takes the Turkish threats seriously, even as he noted that the US presence in the area has “prevented Turkey from any further escalation or invasion until now.”
Ilham Ahmed, the other SDC co-chair, who is currently visiting Washington, similarly told Foreign Policy that, despite the US measures, they continue to be quite concerned about a Turkish attack, given Erdogan’s bellicose rhetoric.
Asked about Erdogan’s harsh position, a Pentagon spokesperson told Kurdistan 24, “The US recognizes Turkey’s legitimate security concerns along its southern border,” and “our goal in establishing a security mechanism” there “is to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS.”
“We believe the mechanism will also contribute to the overall security of the region,” she continued, “including creating conditions that could attract refugees from northeast Syria to voluntarily return to their homes in accordance with UNHCR guidelines.”
In his UN speech, Erdogan also took a tough stance on Israel, quite at odds with that of the Trump administration.
He called for a return to the borders that existed before the 1967 war, when Arab armies, led by Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser, mobilized along those frontiers. Israel responded with a pre-emptive strike in which it defeated the Arab armies in six days and took possession of the Sinai, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights.
It was a spectacular military fiasco, and Israel offered to return almost the entirety of those territories in exchange for peace. But the Arabs famously responded with three noes: no peace, no recognition, and no negotiations. Over 50 years later, that offer is not really on the table anymore.
Yet Erdogan called for “the immediate establishment of an independent and homogeneous Palestinian state on the basis of the 1967 border, with East Jerusalem as its capital.”
“I am asking from the rostrum of the United Nations General Assembly, where are the borders of the state of Israel? Is it the 1948 borders? The 1967 borders? Or is there any other border?” Erdogan stated, before taking a swipe at the peace plan, being worked out by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
“Is the aim of the initiative presented as the ‘Deal of the Century’ to eliminate the presence of the state and people of Palestine?” Erdogan asked.
Dr. Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish parliamentarian and now a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, advised Kurdistan 24, “Erdogan is known for his stunts at international platforms, and his bold threats have often turned out to be a performance for his loyalists at home and Islamist fans around the world.”
While Erdogan’s strong advocacy on behalf of the Palestinians has little practical effect, his stance on Syria could have a major effect.
As Erdemir noted, resettling millions of Syrian refugees in northeast Syria would serve two purposes for Erdogan.
It would “alleviate the rising anti-refugee sentiment, which he believes cost him victory in the local elections,” Erdemir explained.
It would also “allow him demographic engineering” by bringing a very large number of Arabs into the Kurdish majority areas.
Of course, such a large-scale population movement would threaten the hard-won stability in northeastern Syria and could easily lead to the re-emergence of the Islamic State.
However, “it is too early to tell” whether Erdogan will act on his threat, challenging Trump, and “undermining his personal relationship with the US president,” Erdemir remarked.
That would also seriously undermine Turkey’s broader relationship with the US, and were something like that to happen, mark a sea-change in the region.
Editing by Karzan Sulaivany
(Wladimir van Wilgenburg contributed to this report)