U.S. President Donald Trump waits to greet Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, not pictured, at the West Wing of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Trump Warns Turkey of Economic Devastation If It Attacks Kurds

(Bloomberg) -- In a highly unusual public threat to an allied nation, President Donald Trump warned Turkey that it faces economic devastation if it attacks Kurdish forces in Syria after a planned U.S. pullout. The Turkish lira dropped.

In a Sunday night tweet, Trump said his government was starting the “long overdue pullout” from Syria while “hitting the little remaining ISIS territorial caliphate hard,” and would attack it again from a nearby existing base if the jihadists regroup.

“The U.S. is withdrawing from northeast Syria in a strong, deliberate and coordinated manner, and seeks to ensure that the forces that have fought alongside coalition partners in the campaign against ISIS are not mistreated,” an administration official said following the president’s tweet. Turkey has been massing troops on its border for weeks in preparation for an operation to eradicate Kurdish forces that the U.S. has vowed to protect.

Trump’s hasty announcement in December of a U.S. exit from Syria has caused confusion among allies and adversaries alike, and led to the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis in protest. The U.S. outsourced much of the fighting against Islamic State to a group called the YPG, which Turkey views as an extension of the PKK, a separatist Kurdish militant group that both Turkey and the U.S. consider a terrorist organization.

In a separate tweet, Trump also warned the Kurds against provoking Turkey.

The U.S. and Turkey have been allies for more than six decades and account for the two largest armies in NATO, but in recent years their relationship has been repeatedly strained by disputes. U.S. support for the YPG is one of the main sources of the rift.

Trump’s latest tweets drew a quick reaction from Ankara, where the presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said Turkey is fighting “against terrorists, not Kurds.”

“Mr. Trump, terrorists can’t be your partners & allies,” Kalin said on Twitter. “It is a fatal mistake to equate Syrian Kurds” with the YPG, the Syrian branch of a militant organization that Turkey has battled for over three decades, he said.

The ups-and-downs in the relationship took a heavy toll on the Turkish economy last year. U.S. sanctions targeting members of the Turkish government over the detention of an American pastor brought Turkey to the brink of a full-blown currency crisis.

The lira slipped again after the latest Trump tweet. The currency was trading 0.9 percent lower at 5.5142 per dollar at 1:40 p.m. in Istanbul, leading declines across emerging market peers.

America’s continued support for the YPG in the wake of the decision to pull U.S. troops from Syria prompted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to snub Trump’s national security adviser last week, after John Bolton had received a warm welcome by Israeli officials days before.

Erdogan rebuffed a proposed meeting with Bolton in Ankara on Jan. 8, then took to live television instead to insult him for a lack of perspective.

“Although we made a clear agreement with U.S. President Trump, different voices are emerging from different parts of the administration,” Erdogan said as Bolton prepared to leave town after meeting other Turkish officials. “Trump’s remarks continue to be the main point of reference for us.”

Since Trump’s announcement, senior members of his administration including Bolton and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo have frustrated Turkey by setting more specific conditions on what Trump initially suggested would be a quick withdrawal.

Asked to interpret Trump’s tweet while on a tour of the Mideast, Pompeo on Monday said that the U.S. objective in Syria was to create a political process that allowed the Syrian people to crate a unified nation for themselves. He also said the U.S. supported creation of a buffer zone on the Turkish-Syrian border, one of Turkey’s long-time demands.

“The president’s aim there I think is the one we’ve been talking about for some time, which is that we want to make sure that the folks who fought with us to take down the caliphate in ISIS have security and also that terrorists acting out of Syria aren’t able to attack Turkey," he said. “Those are the twin aims. So the precise methodology by which we will achieve both of those elements along that border is something we’re still working on."

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