KUWAIT CITY – The Trump administration's appeal for unity fell on a critical deaf ear Tuesday as the latest expression of U.S. support for Kurdish rebels in Syria enraged America's NATO ally, Turkey, and overshadowed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's plea for nations fighting the Islamic State to overcome rivalries and concentrate on eradicating the extremist group from the Middle East.
While Tillerson sounded the alarm over distractions that threaten the gains of the anti-IS coalition, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan bashed the United States for proposing to send $550 million in new assistance to Syrian opposition forces. Most, if not all, will go to Syrian Kurds, who are counted on by the U.S. to defeat IS forces but are seen by Turkey as terrorists.
Turkey has been attacking the Kurds in Syria for the past three weeks, despite U.S. calls for restraint. And Erdogan's angry comments – including a warning that Turkey's foes may feel “the Ottoman slap,” a reference to the Ottoman Empire's onetime might – set the stage for contentious talks to come when Tillerson visits Ankara later this week.
U.S. officials already expected the Friday discussions would be difficult and had sought to soothe Erdogan's anger by stressing transparency in their support of the Kurds and commitment to Turkey's security. But the proposed new assistance to the Kurds, outlined Monday in the Trump administration's budget request, clearly undermined the calming effort.