Erdogan Says U.S. Arms for Kobani’s Kurd Defenders an Error

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused the U.S. of ignoring his country’s concerns by airdropping weapons to Kurds defending a Syrian town against Islamic State.

U.S. support for Kurdish forces fighting in Kobani, a Syrian community on the Turkish border, has opened a new rift between the NATO allies, with Turkey concerned that arming Kurds with separatist aims could imperil its own security.

“The U.S. is delivering the aid in spite of Turkey,” Erdogan said today in televised remarks during a visit to Latvia, questioning why Kobani “is of strategic importance” to the U.S. “There are no civilians left in Kobani,” and some of the airdropped weapons were seized by Islamic State, he said.

The Kurds fighting in Kobani include forces affiliated with Syria’s Democratic Union Party, known by its Kurdish acronym PYD. Turkey opposes arming the PYD because it is allied with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has fought for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey since 1984 in a conflict that has killed tens of thousands.

“Aid to the PYD is going to the terrorist organization,” Erdogan said in reference to the PKK. “There are senior PKK members within the PYD.” The PKK is classified as a terrorist group by Turkey, the U.S. and the European Union.

U.S. Airdrops

Kurdish fighters in Kobani have held off Islamic State militants for weeks. They’re receiving increased support from the U.S., which has struck militant positions in the town from the air as well as dropping weapons and other supplies for its defenders. The U.S. has vowed to destroy Islamic State, the al-Qaeda breakaway group that holds parts of Iraq and Syria.

One of the 28 airdropped bundles probably fell into Islamic State hands, while another was destroyed before the militants could retrieve it, the Pentagon said yesterday.

Erdogan said he had proposed to President Barack Obama that Kurdish fighters from Iraq, known as Peshmerga, should be sent to bolster Kobani. Turkey agreed this week to let the Peshmerga cross Turkish territory.

“We said we would allow controlled passage of Peshmerga and PYD later accepted this,” Erdogan said. “There is now agreement for passage of 200 Peshmergas from northern Iraq.”

‘Having Conversations’

Peshmerga forces would transit Turkey without weapons, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said in televised remarks today, adding that timing and route of their passage would be clear today or tomorrow. Weapons for the Peshmerga forces would be trucked in separately, according to Turkish media.

“We’re having conversations with the Turks about when this can start happening,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters in Washington yesterday.

While Harf welcomed Turkey’s decision to allow passage to the Peshmerga fighters, she rejected Erdogan’s criticism of the Kobani airdrop, saying it was an effort “to make sure these people fighting ISIL on the ground have the supplies they need.” ISIL is an acronym for the terrorist group’s former name.

Turkey has pushed for U.S. led military efforts in Syria to be directed at ousting President Bashar al-Assad as well as crushing Islamic State.

“Although the current rift is unlikely to seriously strain ties between the allies, Turkey is disturbed with the lack of U.S. action to stop the Syrian regime’s massacres over the past three years,” Cagri Erhan, a professor of international relations at Ankara University, said by phone today. “Erdogan is giving the message that the PYD will remain a terrorist organization in Turkey’s eyes even if the U.S. supplies weapons to it.”

Harf said the U.S. didn’t rule out repeating the arms delivery. “We may. We may not,” she said.