Turkey Says Trump Pledged to End U.S. Arming of Syrian Kurds

Updated on
  • Trump, Erdogan spoke after U.S. rivals met on Syria in Sochi
  • U.S. policy to back Kurds has inflamed tensions with Turkey

A member of the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) walks by refugees in the village of Hawi al-Hawa on Aug. 8, 2017. 

Photographer: Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images

President Donald Trump told Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that the U.S. would stop arming Kurdish fighters in Syria, Turkey’s foreign minister said Friday, ending a policy that had inflamed tensions between the two nations.

Trump and Erdogan spoke by telephone following a summit on Syria earlier this week in Sochi, Russia, between Erdogan, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The gathering focused on discussions for a Syria peace settlement. Putin’s plan, which largely excludes the U.S., got a boost on Friday when Syria’s opposition agreed to form a single bloc to negotiate with President Bashar al-Assad.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in a press conference that Trump said the U.S. would no longer supply weapons to the Kurdish group, known as the YPG. Cavusoglu said that Trump called the arming of the YPG ridiculous. A White House description of the call was less specific, saying only that Trump informed Erdogan of “pending adjustments to the military support provided to our partners on the ground in Syria.”

The White House described the change as “consistent with our previous policy,” and said it reflects the new phase of the battle after the capital of the Islamic State’s self-described caliphate fell to U.S.-backed forces. “The battle of Raqqa is complete and we are progressing into a stabilization phase to ensure that ISIS cannot return,” it said in an e-mailed summary of the phone call.

Erdogan and Trump also discussed the purchase of military equipment from the U.S. by Turkey, according to the White House.

The Kurds received U.S. backing as the most effective local proxies against Islamic State in Syria. But the policy of arming them, which began under former President Barack Obama, has been a point of tension with America’s NATO ally.

‘Walk Away’

Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist organization because of its link to Kurdish rebels in Turkey, and has been requesting that the U.S. take the weapons back now that the fight against Islamic State is winding down. Erdogan has also threatened military action against the Syrian Kurds, who control about a fifth of the war-ravaged country’s territory.

Defense Secretary James Mattis said last week that American forces will maintain a presence in Syria even as the jihadist threat diminishes. “We’re not going to just walk away right now,’’ he said, citing the need to ensure progress toward a viable peace. The Russia-Iran-Turkey bloc has called for U.S. troops to go home.

Trump spoke with Putin earlier this week to discuss the situation in Syria, shortly after Putin met with Assad in Sochi. Russia and Iran are Assad’s main allies, while Turkey has backed armed groups seeking to overthrow him. The three powers have joined forces in cease-fire efforts in Syria and become the dominant players there, though differences remain between them.

While the Obama administration had demanded the Syrian leader step down, Trump now says Assad’s departure isn’t a precondition for peace talks, even if it sees no political future for him. The White House readout emphasized the importance of maintaining a “unified” Syria.

“Will be speaking to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey this morning about bringing peace to the mess that I inherited in the Middle East,’’ Trump said on Twitter before the call. “I will get it all done, but what a mistake, in lives and dollars (6 trillion), to be there in the first place!’’

— With assistance by Margaret Talev, Henry Meyer, and Benjamin Harvey

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