Turkey Calls on Trump to Fire Obama Appointee McGurk

Updated on
  • Obama-era appointees are poisoning U.S.-Turkey ties: Cavusoglu
  • Turkish foreign minister speaks after Erdogan-Trump meeting

Trump, Erdogan Speak About Syria, Iraq, Terrorism

Turkey called on President Donald Trump to get rid of Brett McGurk, the U.S. envoy for the global coalition to counter Islamic State, over his backing for Kurdish groups it views as its top national security threat.

U.S. support for YPG fighters battling Islamic State in Syria has riled Turkey, which sees the group as an extension of the autonomy-seeking Kurdish PKK group that has fought the Turkish military since the 1980s. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan used his meeting with Trump in Washington on Tuesday to personally urge the U.S. leader to rethink the alliance with the Kurdish fighters.

“Replacing McGurk would be beneficial,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in an interview on NTV television on Thursday. “McGurk is a person who openly supports the PKK and YPG.”

The U.S. signaled it’s unlikely to oblige its ally. McGurk has done “tremendous work” in coordinating and leading the coalition against Islamic State, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in an emailed statement. He enjoys the “full support and backing” of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the White House, she said.

The U.S. appreciates Turkey’s security concerns about the PKK and will “continue regular consultations with our NATO ally on this and other topics of mutual importance,” Nauert said.

‘More Sincere’

Turkey has argued that Western policy in Syria should have a wider goal than eliminating Islamic State, calling for action against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime as well as the Kurds. It’s expressed hopes that the new U.S. president may be more sympathetic to that view.

Cavusoglu said Trump’s approach to disputes over Syria was “more sincere” than that of his predecessor Barack Obama, who appointed McGurk to his position in 2015. The foreign minister was one of the Turkish officials who participated in a lunch meeting between Trump and Erdogan at the White House.

“These people are a risk and we need to be careful,” Cavusoglu said. “They need to not poison the new administration.” Erdogan clearly conveyed that message to Trump, without naming names, he said. Trump’s side responded that U.S. cooperation with the YPG had been “a necessity and not a choice,” according to the minister.

Arming YPG

McGurk is a controversial figure in Turkey and frequently makes front pages in its newspapers, appearing in photographs with the U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters. Trump retained McGurk as the main envoy for the coalition, and has deepened U.S. cooperation with the Syrian Kurdish YPG: earlier this month, Trump signed a measure allowing the U.S. to arm the group directly, despite Turkish protests.

“The weapons given to the YPG won’t be used against us,” Cavusoglu said in the NTV interview. He added that Turkey wouldn’t hesitate to strike the YPG according to its own rules of engagement, and wouldn’t participate in any coalition campaigns against Islamic State in which the YPG was a participant. The U.S. side didn’t object when Erdogan conveyed that message, he said.

Cavusoglu also weighed in on Germany’s search for alternatives to the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, which houses NATO troops, after Turkey blocked a German delegation from visiting troops there.

“If they want to withdraw from Incirlik, that’s up to them, we’re not going to beg” them to stay, Cavusoglu said. Should Germany decide to place its troops elsewhere, Turkey will say “bye-bye,” he said.

Trump will visit Saudi Arabia this weekend to kick off his first visit abroad as president. He later heads to Israel and Rome before joining a NATO summit in Brussels next week, where he’ll meet again with Erdogan.

— With assistance by Nick Wadhams

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