Turkey and US discuss strategic partnership in İstanbul meeting amid tensions

US National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster held talks on Sunday in İstanbul with Turkish autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s spokesman İbrahim Kalın and both confirmed the long-term strategic partnership between the two countries amid persistent tensions between the NATO allies over Syria and other issues.

“At the meeting, the two officials discussed Turkey and the United States’ long-term strategic partnership and the priorities and concerns of the two countries,” the president’s office said in a written statement. “In this framework, the issues that negatively affect bilateral relations have been dealt with in detail and the ways of developing joint action against every kind of terrorism have been investigated,” the statement read.

In a statement released after the meeting, the White House has also said McMaster affirmed the long-term strategic partnership between the United States and Turkey and the two officials discussed the priorities and concerns of both countries.

“They also exchanged views on American-Turkish relations as longstanding allies, their common strategic challenges, and regional developments. While discussing these issues, they addressed issues affecting bilateral relations in detail and explored ways to expand the joint fight against all forms of terrorism,” the statement read.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is also expected to arrive in Turkey next week. The visits by top US officials come amid Turkey’s “Operation Olive Branch” that has been targeting the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) affiliates in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northwestern Syria’s Afrin region. Last week Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said he would tell Tillerson during his visit that the two countries must repair damaged mutual trust. No dates have yet been confirmed for the Tillerson visit.

The operation and the US military presence in Syria’s Manbij, where Turkish government has vowed to head next after Afrin, are expected to be discussed during the meetings.

On Wednesday, Kalın said, “The public questions whether the US has plans to stay in the region in the long term due to ongoing US support for the PYD, even though President Donald Trump personally promised President Erdoğan during phone calls that the support would end.”

“Those who equate Turkey with those marauders under the pretext of the anti-ISIL fight have now begun to realize which one is a state and which one is a band of gangs,” President Erdoğan told his ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) parliamentary group on Feb. 6.

“Mr. Obama did not tell the truth. Trump is also on the same path. They said: ‘We will withdraw from Manbij.’ Why don’t you withdraw? Who have you brought to this city with you? The PYD, the YPG and the PKK. You allow them to settle and tell us ‘Don’t come to Manbij.’ We will come to Manbij to hand it over to its real owners,” Erdoğan said.

Meanwhile, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ said on Sunday that “the American officials should stop trying to convince Turkey and should instead focus on collecting weapons from terrorist organisations.”

Bozdağ slammed some US soldiers for having pictures taken with the YPG militants. “You should stop testing and trying us. Don’t come to Turkey. Instead, you should deal with the terrorist organizations to which you provided guns and logistic help. You should collect those guns from them,” Bozdağ said.

“Some US soldiers took pictures with members of the PYD, and shared them. This is simply using an iron hand in a velvet glove and Turkey won’t allow this,” Bozdağ added. Bozdağ also accused the US of not fulfilling the promises it made. “You should fulfill the promises you made before. You were not going to be in Manbij and not going to give the terrorist organization guns. Instead, you protected the terrorist organization. The US is our NATO ally; it should not continue to provide guns to the group and should stop taking pictures with terrorists,” Bozdağ said.

Another Turkish Deputy Prime Minister, Fikri Işık, said on Saturday that Ankara would not refrain to close the İncirlik Airbase in Turkey, if Turkey’s long-term interests require. Answering journalists’ questions regarding the tension between Washington and Ankara for the US support to the Kurdish militia groups in Syria, Işık was quoted by pro-government Türkiye daily as saying: “If Turkey’s medium and long-term interests require to take a step [to close the base] Turkey certainly would not refrain from taking this step.”

When reporters pressed whether his statement indicate that the closure of the base is in the government’s agenda, Işık added that “Certain issues are not expressed publicly, but the decision-making mechanisms always hold each and every subject in an evaluation,” according to the newspaper.

Established in 1954 by a joint-use agreement between the Turkish and the US military, the İncirlik Airbase has about 5,000 US troops, and is home to the 39th Air Base Wing of the US Air Force.

The United States will be remembered as one of Turkey’s enemies if its support to the PKK’s Syrian affiliate YPG does not cease, said Devlet Bahçeli, Erdoğan’s ultra-nationalist ally and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader, on Sunday, also asking how can the superpower be an ally of Turkey if it calls YPG ‘heroes.’

Slamming US commander Paul E. Funk’s remarks about YPG militants being “heroes” for defeating ISIL  in Raqqa, Bahçeli said that the commander has failed to see “who made the real mistake.” “How can the US be an ally if they call the traitors ‘heroes’? The fact that US special forces are patrolling in Manbij is a treason against Turkey by its own ally,” he said. “The US has at least encouraged terror attacks against Turkey, if not fully endorsed,” he added.

Turkey is targeting the Syrian Kurdish YPG in a weeks-long air and ground operation in Syria’s Afrin region. Turkey considers the YPG the Syrian extension of the PKK, but it is a key component of US-backed forces battling the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria. Erdoğan has promised to sweep the militia from Turkey’s southern border, a move that could put Turkish troops in confrontation with US forces on the ground in Syria.

At least 1,266 PKK/KCK/PYD-YPG and allegedly ISIL militants have been “neutralized” since the beginning of Operation Olive Branch in Syria’s Afrin, the Turkish General Staff said on Sunday. Turkish authorities often use the word “neutralized” in their statements to imply the armed militants in question either surrendered or were killed or captured.

In a statement, the military said the Turkish Armed Forces had destroyed 19 PKK/KCK/PYD-YPG and allegedly ISIL targets and “neutralized” 86 more militants during operations since Saturday.

The Turkish military has also announced the death of another soldier in operation in northern Syria. Sunday’s announcement brings to 31 the number of Turkish soldiers killed in 22 days, since the operation started on Jan. 20. Saturday was the deadliest single day for Turkey as 11 Turkish soldiers killed in a day.

On Jan. 20, Turkish government launched “Operation Olive Branch” in Afrin, northwestern Syria. According to the Turkish General Staff, the operation aims to establish security and stability along Turkey’s borders and the region as well as “to protect Syrians from terrorist oppression and cruelty.”

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