A key political ally of Turkey’s president says defeating the Islamic State in Syria will require U.S. troops joining Turkish military forces on the ground inside the war-torn nation — a move that would require a significant shift in the Obama administration’s current policy.
“I don’t know the technical details of how many troops or brigades, but a joint operation is needed,” Mehmet Mehdi Eker, the deputy chairman of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party, told The Washington Times in an exclusive interview on Thursday night.
Mr. Eker, in Washington with a delegation of Turkish lawmakers, lamented that the Obama administration lacks a clear plan for defeating the Islamic State — also known as ISIS, ISIL and Deash — and accused the U.S. of sloppily backing Kurdish militias with links to the so-called Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which both Washington and Ankara have for years listed as a terrorist organization.
While he said that he, himself, is ethnically Kurdish, Mr. Eker asserted that the Obama administration’s attempt to distinguish between the PKK and other Kurdish groups in northern Syria, such as the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, and the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, is “dangerous.”
Such groups, he said, should be seen by U.S. officials the same way Washington views the Islamic State, “as terrorists.”
It’s an argument that officials in Mr. Erdogan’s inner circle have been making for months. But Mr. Eker’s remarks during a wide-ranging discussion with The Times came at a particular moment of heightened uncertainty over U.S.-Turkey military cooperation against ISIS.
At one point during the interview at the Turkish Ambassador’s residence in Washington, Ambassador Serdar Kilic joined the discussion to back up Mr. Eker’s statements.
“As an ally, the United States should be fighting against all threats, not only to those threats that are against the United States, but threats that are against its ally [Turkey] as well,” said Mr. Kilic, who specifically criticized what he described as ongoing U.S. backing for the YPG and PYD in northern Syria.
Mr. Eker, meanwhile, is considered a key player in the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Critics describe the party as increasingly authoritarian and Islamist-leaning in Turkey, and its growing power under Mr. Erdogan has been viewed with concern in Washington over the past half-decade.
But ties between the two nations have faced particular strain in recent months, as the Erdogan government has scrambled to staunch fallout over this summer’s failed military coup in Ankara, and the Obama administration has sought to downplay its rifts with the major NATO ally.
Turkey’s role in the ISIS fight has been perplexing from the start for the administration. While Mr. Erdogan’s critics spent much of the past two years accusing the Turkish president of openly aiding the terror group in a bid to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad, Ankara’s calculus has shifted in the wake of several recent ISIS attacks carried out inside Turkey.
While Ankara had previously allowed U.S. warplanes to carry out airstrikes against ISIS targets in Syria from Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey, Mr. Erdogan is now deeply engaged in the war.
Dozens of Turkish military tanks and special forces troops — backed by the nation’s own fighter jets overhead — suddenly moved across the border into Syria in mid-August, just a month after the Turkish president arrested hundreds of military officials accused of trying to overthrow him with a botched coup.
Recent days saw the Turkish forces drive ISIS from the key border town of Jarablus. Reports Thursday said the Turks were advancing through several villages in northern Syria as part of an offensive that officials close to Mr. Erdogan say could soon push toward the ISIS-held city of Raqqa — the terror group’s de facto capital in the war zone.
The catch is that the Turkish military is seen to be simultaneously waging war against U.S.-backed and Kurdish forces in the area.
Some of the region’s Kurdish militias have long been engaged in an insurgency against the Turkish state, and the Erdogan government lists several, namely the PKK, as terrorist organizations.
While Washington also lists the PKK as terrorists, the Obama administration has relied heavily on other Kurdish fighters to retake territory from ISIS in northern Syria and Iraq. But now U.S. officials are expressing concern that Turkey aims to use its own campaign against ISIS as a pretext to crush the very Kurdish militants whom Washington is backing.
It’s a complex dynamic running beneath Mr. Erdogan sudden military advance into Syria. The Turkish president has suggested he’s ready to begin closely coordinating with Washington on a major counter-ISIS offensive — even claiming that Mr. Obama had presented the idea when the two met behind-the-scenes at last week’s G20 summit in China.
It remains to be seen what may come of such suggestions during the coming days and weeks.
Away from the comments on ISIS and Syria, Mr. Eker told The Times Thursday that his delegation is visiting Washington with the express purpose of trying to convince American officials that the July coup attempt in Turkey was masterminded by a U.S.-based Muslim cleric that Ankara now badly wants extradited to Turkey.
Mr. Erdogan himself offered harsh remarks on the matter last month, criticizing the Obama administration during an Aug. 2 speech for refusing to arrest and extradite 75-year-old cleric Fethullah Gulen.
Mr. Gulen has been living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since the late-1990s and Mr. Erdogan claimed U.S.-based charter schools serve as the main source of income for the cleric’s network.
Mr. Eker seethed over Washington’s seeming ambivalence toward the situation on Thursday, describing Mr. Gulen’s movement as a “messianic and double-faced cult” that has “clandestine operations” aimed at overthrowing the Turkish government.
Obama administration officials have been loathe to discuss the matter publicly, beyond Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s assertion during the days immediately following the coup attempt that Turkish officials would have to show clear evidence of Mr. Gulen’s involvement if they want U.S. courts to consider the cleric’s extradition.
Mr. Eker claimed that “there is evidence” explicitly tying Mr. Gulen to the July coup attempt and it will soon be presented to a delegation of U.S. Justice Department officials presently in Turkey to examine the Turkish request for extradition.
While he did not provide specifics, he broadly accused the so-called “Gulenist” movement of “blackmailing” Turkish military officials and luring them into the movement with a variety of underhanded tactics.
One such tactic, Mr. Eker said, involves providing young military officers with the answers to university examinations needed to advance their careers. Once the officers move up the ranks, he said, the movement’s leaders threaten to reveal the past evidence of exam cheating unless the officers agree to carry out orders from Mr. Gulen.
With matter of Mr. Gulen’s potential extradition so far unresolved, the Erdogan government has launched a sweeping crackdown on what it says are the cleric’s followers inside Turkey. Some 70,000 people have been suspended from their jobs on suspicion of being involved in the movement. Some say the president is using the coup as an excuse to settle old political scores.