(Bloomberg) -- Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he’s looking forward to a “decisive meeting” with his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump, whose decision to arm Kurdish groups against Islamic State in Syria has stoked tensions between the two NATO members.
“If we are strategic allies, then we should make decisions in alliance,” the Sabah newspaper cited Erdogan as telling reporters on Sunday during a trip to China. He is due to meet Trump in Washington on Tuesday. “If our alliance is going to be overshadowed, then we should take care of ourselves,” he said. “We can’t allow this alliance to be taken over by policies against Turkey.”
The Turkish government opposes the U.S. plan to provide equipment including mortars and armored cars to the Kurdish militia group YPG in Syria, which it regards as a terrorist group linked to the separatist Kurdish PKK in southeast Turkey. The U.S. sees the Syrian Kurds as the only force capable of quickly capturing Islamic State’s self-declared capital of Raqqa in Syria.
It’s not clear, however, whether Erdogan expects to be able to dissuade Trump during their meeting, and what action he is prepared to take if the U.S. goes ahead with the policy. In an interview with the Financial Times last week, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim struck a more conciliatory tone after receiving assurances from U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis that the U.S. is committed to protecting Turkey.
“Trump is unlikely to change his mind, and arming the Kurds in Syria will further strain relations between them,” Nihat Ali Ozcan, an analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation in Ankara, said by phone on Monday. “Turkey may prefer to wait and see, knowing that even the capture of Raqqa won’t eradicate Islamic State, and the war will linger for years and years.”
Cold War Allies
While Turkey and the U.S. saw their close ties as critical to halting Soviet expansion during the Cold War, their military relations have been more strained since 2003 -- when Turkey refused to let the U.S. use it as a base from which to invade Iraq. Many Turks also still refer to an incident in northern Iraq that year, when U.S. forces handcuffed 11 Turkish soldiers whom they suspected of plotting to assassinate a top Iraqi Kurdish official.
Even so, Turkey is a part of the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State, and U.S. jets conduct airstrikes against the group from Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base.
Where they differ is on the role of YPG militants in the operation to take Raqqa. Turkey, which has NATO’s second-biggest military, is concerned that growing Kurdish power in the region could inspire separatists at home, and that weapons provided by the U.S. could eventually be used against the Turkish military. Turkey drew rebukes from the U.S. State Department and Pentagon last month when its warplanes bombed Kurdish groups in Syria and Iraq.
Some senior Turkish officials last week said the U.S. policy toward the YPG amounted to support for terrorism, putting the government on an apparent collision course with Trump ahead of Erdogan’s meeting. Others, including Prime Minister Yildirim, have taken a more measured approach.
“Turkey’s concerns are understood, but on the ground this was a tactical alliance and they had no choice,” Yildirim told the Financial Times. “The defense secretary on numerous occasions made very, very clear, an unequivocal commitment that they would never allow those weapons to be turned against Turkey,” the newspaper cited Yildirim as saying.