Erdogan threw Trump's letter 'in the trash’ then decided to launch Syria offensive

Suggestion that Erdogan could meet and negotiate with head of an organisation Turkey considers a terrorist organisation likely most insulting part of letter, analysts say

Borzou Daragahi
Istanbul
Thursday 17 October 2019 18:48 BST
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Trump angrily denies giving Turkey's Erdogan 'green light' for Syria invasion

Recep Tayyip Erdogan launched a military operation to take control of a huge swath of northeast Syria just hours after angrily reading and tossing out a letter from Donald Trump that urged Turkey’s president not start a conflict, local media cited official sources as saying.

Reports about the existence of the 9 October letter and the Turkish reaction came as the US secretary of state and vice president arrived in Ankara to negotiate with the Erdogan government to halt Operation Peace Spring, its eight-day offensive to dislodge a Kurdish-militia from its border.

According to Turkish journalists citing unnamed sources close to the government in Ankara, Mr Erdogan read the letter and launched the operation shortly thereafter at 4pm local time on 9 October.

“Erdogan rejected the offer of mediation and the letter was thrown into the trash,” wrote journalist Ahmet Hakan, who maintains strong official contacts with Ankara and writes for the pro-government paper Hurriyet, on Twitter. “The clearest answer to this letter is the one on 9 October at 16:00. This answer is the Operation Peace Spring.”

No Turkish official has yet publicly confirmed the account, which has been reported by several Turkish-language news outlets.

Much has been made of the familiar tone of the letter, which was leaked by the White House to Fox News, and urges Mr Erdogan, “Don’t be a tough guy! Don’t be a fool!”

But analysts say the suggestion that Mr Erdogan, a head of state of a G20 country, could meet and negotiate with the head of an organisation Turkey considers a terrorist group would have been the most insulting dimension of the letter.

In the letter, Mr Trump told Mr Erdogan he could make a “great deal” with General Mazloum Kobani, leader of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Kurdish-led militia that is allied with Washington in the fight against Isis.

Putting the YPG and Turkey on an equal footing would be unacceptable, say several analysts familiar with Ankara’s thinking, akin to suggesting Osama bin Laden would have sat down with George W Bush.

A presenter at pro-government CNN Turk described the letter as “weird and far from diplomatic”.

The October 9 letter from US President Donald Trump to Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan (Reuters)
The October 9 letter from US President Donald Trump to Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan (Reuters) (VIA REUTERS)

“Apart from being undiplomatic, this is a vile letter and it is a scandal,” commentator Hakan Celik told CNN Turk. “This is also an indication of how bad relations between Turkey and the US have become.”

Other commentators on social media noted that if ordinary people published Turkish translations of the letter they could be “detained on charges of insulting the president”.

The letter suggests continuing signs of dysfunction and breakdown in the White House, which under previous administrations would have had the State Department vet such a communication.

It remains unclear what, if anything, the meeting between senior US and Turkish officials in Ankara will accomplish. Few believe Mike Pence, the US vice president, has much of an understanding of what is happening in Syria. Mike Pompeo has a grasp of both the dynamics inside Syria and Turkish politics, but has a single-minded focus on Iran that has repeatedly coloured his regional approach.

Turkish mistrust of Washington remains high, especially over a series of unfulfilled promises that include commitments to keep YPG forces east of the Euphrates river in Syria, hand over lists of weapons to the YPG, and halt the growing influence of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – the Turkish branch of the Kurdish separatist group – inside northeast Syria.

Mr Trump’s vow, in his letter, to damage the Turkish economy if it did not meet his vague demands, also underscores the atmosphere of growing hostility between the two Nato allies.

“You don’t want to be responsible for slaughtering thousands of civilians, and I don’t want to be responsible for destroying the Turkish economy – and I will,” he wrote.

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