President Donald Trump and Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan discussed “ongoing cooperation in Syria as US forces begin to withdraw” during a phone call Monday, just one day after Trump threatened to “devastate Turkey economically” if the NATO-allied country attacks Kurds in the region.
“The President expressed the desire to work together to address Turkey’s security concerns in northeast Syria while stressing the importance to the United States that Turkey does not mistreat the Kurds and other Syrian Democratic Forces with whom we have fought to defeat ISIS,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement about the call.
Sanders noted that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford will meet with his Turkish counterpart on Tuesday “to continue consultations” on Syria.
“Gen. Dunford is scheduled to meet with his Turkish counterpart this week on the sidelines of the NATO Military Committee in Chiefs of Defense Session, which will be held Jan. 15-16 at the NATO Headquarters, Brussels, Belgium,” Col. Patrick Ryder, a spokesperson for Dunford told CNN.
Later Monday, Trump confirmed the phone call in a tweet.
“Spoke w/ President Erdogan of Turkey to advise where we stand on all matters including our last two weeks of success in fighting the remnants of ISIS, and 20 mile safe zone. Also spoke about economic development between the U.S. & Turkey - great potential to substantially expand!” he wrote.
During the call, Erdogan told Trump that Turkey backs the President’s withdrawal decision and extends all kinds of support to the United States, according to state news agency Anadolu.
The Turkish state news agency said Erdogan emphatically told Trump that Turkey does not have any problems with the Kurds and that “Turkey aims to fight all terror organizations including ISIS, PKK (The Kurdistan Workers Party) and its cross-border extensions that are threat to its national security.”
The two leaders agreed on developing bilateral economic relations to a higher level, according to the report.
Monday’s call between Trump and Erdogan comes just one day after the US President issued a stark threat toward Turkey, a NATO ally that has partnered with the US in the fight against ISIS.
“Starting the long overdue pullout from Syria while hitting the little remaining ISIS territorial caliphate hard, and from many directions. Will attack again from existing nearby base if it reforms,” Trump tweeted on Sunday.
He added, “Will devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds,” but followed up in a second tweet, “Likewise, do not want the Kurds to provoke Turkey.”
“Russia, Iran and Syria have been the biggest beneficiaries of the long term U.S. policy of destroying ISIS in Syria - natural enemies. We also benefit but it is now time to bring our troops back home. Stop the ENDLESS WARS!” Trump continued in the second tweet.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu responded directly to Trump’s comments Monday prior to the release of a readout from the phone call between the two leaders.
“As for Donald Trump’s threat language, we have repeatedly said that we will not be afraid of any threat. … You cannot have any result from threatening Turkey economically. We need to see how we can solve this problem together. There is economic difficulties on one side and terror on the other,” he said.
Cavusoglu also insisted that Turkey is not an enemy of the Kurds.
However, Turkey views some Kurdish groups in the region as terrorist organizations and Kurds make up the majority of US-allied fighters operating in Syria in the civil war against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
On Monday, Turkey’s presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said Ankara expected Washington to “honor” the two countries’ strategic partnership.
In a tweet directed at Trump, Kalin said “terrorists can’t be your partners (and) allies.”
“Turkey expects the US to honor our strategic partnership and doesn’t want it to be shadowed by terrorist propaganda,” he added. “It is a fatal mistake to equate Syrian Kurds with the PKK, which is on the US terrorists list, and its Syria branch PYD/YPG. … Turkey fights against terrorists, not Kurds. We will protect Kurds and other Syrians against all terrorist threats.”
Last week, Erdoğan publicly lashed out at US national security adviser John Bolton for saying the US withdrawal was contingent upon Turkey’s pledge not to attack US-backed Kurdish fighters in Syria once troops leave.
“Bolton made a serious mistake. If he thinks that way, he is in a big mistake. We will not compromise,” Erdoğan said.
CNN reported last week that the first US military ground equipment has been withdrawn from Syria, according to an administration official with direct knowledge of the operation.
CNN’s Barbara Starr, Kate Sullivan and Liz Stark contributed reporting