Trump Calls Turkey's President To Discuss Strikes In Syria

Jan 25, 2018
Originally published on January 25, 2018 9:13 am
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Here is a partial list of things on which the United States and Turkey disagree. They differ over a Turkish cleric who's taken refuge in the U.S. They differ over exactly how to approach the war in Syria. They differ over who their friends are. Turkish jets bombed Kurdish groups that had been armed by the United States. And they even differ over what the two countries' presidents said yesterday in a phone call. NPR's Peter Kenyon is in Istanbul.

Hi there, Peter.


INSKEEP: OK. So President Trump gets on the phone, calls Turkey's president, Erdogan. Afterward, the White House gives a readout, as they call it, of what was said. And Turkey says no, no, no, no - no, that's all wrong. What's the dispute here?

KENYON: Well, yes, the White House went first. They put out this readout, and it was quite pointed. It talked about Trump's concerns over Turkey's military operation against these Kurdish Syrian fighters. These are the folks that Washington says it needs in the fight against ISIS. The White House also said Trump spoke about escalating violence undercutting the goals in Syria. And one particular worry is Turkey's intention of moving from Afrin, where they are now, to Manbij, further east, and that's where there are U.S. forces stationed.

Trump also talked about destructive and false rhetoric coming from Turkey and about the prolonged state of emergency in the country. Turkey's version - nothing like that, completely different. Basically, they accused the White House of outright misstating what was said in the phone call. The Turks claim Trump never raised concerns about escalating violence. There was no mention of the state of emergency. They did talk about the U.S. forces in Manbij and avoiding clashes, but essentially, there was no talk of destructive or false rhetoric - so a 180-degree difference.

INSKEEP: Essentially, the Turks say that they were not reprimanded at all on this call, which would be a way to think of what Trump supposedly said - or the White House said (unintelligible).

KENYON: Well, exactly. And more than that, Turkey said, this wasn't really a conversation. This was an exchange of views. Yeah, that's a much chillier description - a phrase diplomats sometime use to describe strong disagreements.

INSKEEP: OK. So it's a disagreement over what was said in a phone call, which can sound kind of minor. Is this serious in the minds of Turkish officials?

KENYON: I think there's worries that it could get quite serious. Certainly, this issue of confrontation militarily on the ground between American and Turkish troops is something to worry about. But this, you know, is a series of disagreements. As you mentioned at the top, anti-American sentiment here is quite strong. Meanwhile, in the U.S., some conservatives say, what is going on with Turkey? Do they even belong in NATO anymore?

People here are basically, because of the conflict going on next door, are rallying behind President Erdogan. And Turkey has been fighting its own Kurdish militants, you know, for decades. So that's some of the background to that. There's some dismay among the secular population here. But these days, they're pretty much a minority.

INSKEEP: You remind us that Turkey is fighting these Kurdish militants in Turkey. Then across the border in Syria, you have Kurdish militants - if you want to call them that - or Kurdish forces that are allied with the United States, the ones who were bombed. They're trying to fight ISIS. How's the war going?

KENYON: Well, the military says its forces are doing quite well. It says they've captured more Kurdish positions, even today, in the Afrin region. They say, throughout this operation, they've killed or captured more than 300 terrorists by which they most likely means Syrian Kurdish fighters. There's been a bunch more airstrikes, 200 targets hit since the operation began but no indication of the operation nearing its finish.

INSKEEP: Peter, these are NATO allies, Turkey and the United States. Is anybody...

KENYON: That's right.

INSKEEP: ...Trying to fix up relations?

KENYON: Well, what we're hearing so far from the two principals suggests just the opposite. Sides seem to be digging in. Trump's homeland security adviser, Tom Bossert, is quoted as saying Washington prefers that Turkish troops withdraw themselves from Syria. And then Turkish officials are saying it's U.S. support for terrorists in Syria that's the problem and if Washington wants to avoid a clash, it should review its forces. In other words, move out of the way. That doesn't sound very conciliatory so far.

INSKEEP: NPR's Peter Kenyon is in Istanbul.

Peter, thanks.

KENYON: Thanks, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.