Ilhan Tanir
Jan 25 2018

Trump phone call to Turkey’s Erdoğan the sternest warning yet

U.S. President Donald Trump’s harsh tone and stern warnings in a phone call to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reflect growing U.S. exasperation with its NATO ally over Ankara’s invasion of northern Syria and seeming alliance with Washington’s foes, diplomatic sources said.

Trump warned Erdoğan, on Wednesday to avoid risking military conflict with the United States during the ongoing Turkish military incursion into Syria, a White House statement said. Trump “urged Turkey to exercise caution and to avoid any actions that might risk conflict between Turkish and American forces” and also “expressed concern about the destructive and false rhetoric coming from Turkey”.

While in previous phone conversations, Trump and Erdoğan had sounded “positive”, or even “cheerful”, sources in the capital said, the talk on Jan. 24 went “very badly”.

The harsh tone and serious warnings made by the White House had been chosen after the failure of talks between the Turkish Foreign Ministry and a U.S. delegation led by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Jonathan Cohen to Ankara, the sources said.

Cohen, who is responsible for the Turkey, Cyprus and Greece desks at the State Department, visited Ankara this week in order to discuss Turkey’s offensive against the Kurdish-held Syrian district of Afrin and Ankara’s plans to expand the operation into the district of Manbij, where a small contingent of U.S. troops is training mainly Kurdish forces.

Western diplomatic sources told Ahval that Cohen received messages from Ankara regarding both districts that led him only to become more concerned. As one senior State Department figure put it, they were “talking past each other”.

Turkish officials did not seem to take Cohen seriously, sources said, leading to the phone call from Trump to clarify the U.S. message to Ankara.

Following Cohen’s Ankara visit, U.S. concerns over Manbij became "very serious."

U.S. officials now saw that “Turkey’s policy in Syria was completely to Russia’s benefit” and said, “the U.S. position on Syria was being weakened by Turkey’s Syrian policy”.

U.S. officials even went so far as to call Turkey’s position as being “on the other side of a ‘proxy war’ against the United States”.

That was when it was decided that Trump would deliver his most serious message yet to Erdoğan in their Wednesday phone conversation.

The White House statement on the call included a warning for Turkey to distance itself from the possibility of clashes between U.S. and Turkish forces, a reference to Manbij, where U.S. forces are stationed.

Following the call, the State Department held a high-level crisis meeting on Turkey at which it co-ordinated the statement about the phone call with the White House.

The statement recalled the “prolonged state of emergency” in Turkey, U.S. citizens arrested in Turkey, and called for the end to the “false rhetoric” of anti-U.S. statements from Erdoğan and other high-level Turkish officials. Of course, most of all, it expressed concern over the Afrin operation, asking for it to be slowed down.

It is as though on the phone call was the last exit before crossing the bridge.

If there is no change in policy both over Afrin and Manbij, we may well see a very different stance from Washington and a very different type of relationship.