Erdogan fumes over US reaction to reported massacre of Turks

Selcan Hacaoglu

Turkey accused the U.S. of questioning its account of a massacre of Turkish citizens by Kurdish militants, as it presses Washington to cut off support for a related armed group in Syria.

On Sunday, Turkey reported that separatist militants from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, executed 13 Turkish hostages held in a cave in northern Iraq. The U.S. State Department tweeted in response that “if reports of the death of Turkish civilians at the hands of the PKK, a designated terrorist organization, are confirmed, we condemn this action in the strongest possible terms.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses his ruling party's supporters in the Black Sea city of Rize, Turkey, Monday, Feb. 15, 2021.

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The suggestion of skepticism set off a tirade by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who branded the U.S. statement “ridiculous” and accused Washington of siding with the militants and their affiliates in Syria against NATO ally Ankara. The Foreign Ministry summoned the U.S. ambassador to protest the statement.

“You are certainly siding with them and behind them,” Erdogan said Monday in a speech marking the 22nd anniversary of the capture of the PKK’s imprisoned chief, Abdullah Ocalan. “If we are to continue alongside you in this world, in NATO, you won’t be siding with terrorists.”

The Turkish military has been battling PKK separatists based in southeast Turkey for nearly 40 years, and the government has imprisoned dozens of Kurdish politicians. Washington’s arming of the PKK’s Syrian affiliate – the main fighting force in the U.S.-led campaign against Islamic State – has severely strained ties with Ankara.

The Kurdish fighters control enclaves in Syria near Turkey’s southern border, and Ankara sees the U.S. support for the Syrian YPG militia as backing Kurdish aspirations to autonomy.

Turkey took a new direction in its campaign against Kurdish separatists earlier this month when it signaled it could give ground on the Russian missiles it’s poised to deploy if the U.S. severs support for the Syrian Kurdish fighters.

The deaths of the Turkish hostages, including security forces, fueled a wave of nationalist backlash. Turkey said more than 50 PKK militants were killed in northern Iraq in clashes with Turkish troops. Prosecutors launched probes after two lawmakers of the pro-Kurdish HDP party claimed the government refused to negotiate the hostages’ freedom. Police rounded up more than 700 suspects, including HDP members, on suspicion of links to the militants.

“From now on, nowhere is safe for terrorists, neither Qandil, nor Sinjar nor Syria,” Erdogan said, referring to the main PKK camp of Qandil on the Iraqi-Iranian border, and Mount Sinjar, located near the Iraqi-Syrian frontier.

Turkey reached separate agreements with the U.S. and Russia to keep Kurdish fighters in Syria away from its border in 2019. If it starts targeting Kurdish YPG forces again, that could cause further friction with the administration of Joe Biden, who has been critical of Erdogan’s authoritarian ways.

Recently, U.S. Ambassador David Satterfield told Turkish media that Washington’s policy of working with Syrian Kurdish forces has not changed and that Turkey would have to get rid of its Russian S-400 missiles if it wants related U.S. sanctions lifted.