Turkey reacted angrily on Friday to a French offer to mediate with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that is dominated by a Kurdish militia deemed a terrorist organization by Ankara.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused French President Emmanuel Macron of overstepping “his limits” and going “over his head,” adding that Turkey would never negotiate with “terrorists.” He warned: “Don’t get into things that are out of your depth.”
Macron pledged support after meeting members of the SDF in Paris on Thursday to discuss the conflict in northern Syria. He praised the group in a statement, saying it was courageously fighting Daesh.
The French president also reiterated France’s opposition to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Turkish Kurdish rebel group, but hoped that the SDF and Turkey would establish a dialogue with French help.
Ankara considers the Kurdish YPG, which forms the strongest force in the SDF, to be an extension of the PKK terrorist group. The SDF has been at the forefront of the US-led coalition’s strategy to defeat Daesh.
A French presidential official said that the Turkish response was no surprise given the “sensitivities” around Kurdish separatist violence in Turkey, the AP reported. The official said that the Turkish offensive against opposition forces in northwest Syria “must stop,” saying it jeopardized the broader US-led military campaign against Daesh.
Macron demanded that Syrian civilians be given full access to humanitarian aid in Afrin, which the Turkish army and its Syrian opposition allies claimed last week to control after driving out YPG forces. Activists said 280 people were killed and more than a quarter of a million civilians have fled Afrin, but this was denied by Ankara.
Macron met for the first time on Thursday with an SDF delegation that included the YPG, its political arm the PYD, and Christian and Arab officials from northern Syria.
Erdogan said that those “who go to bed with terrorists, or even host them in their palaces, will sooner or later understand the mistake they’re making.” He also said that Macron made “bizarre” comments during a phone conversation last week that forced Erdogan to raise his voice and respond with a “high frequency.”
Paris denied on Friday that it would dispatch troops to northern Syria following earlier speculation. The Elysee statement said: “France does not foresee any new military operation on the ground in northern Syria outside the anti-Daesh international coalition.”
Erdogan has said that Turkey is preparing to extend operations along hundreds of miles of border with Syria, raising tensions with the US, which has 2,000 soldiers stationed in northern Syrian alongside the SDF, including in the town of Manbij.
US President Donald Trump appeared on Thursday to signal the withdrawal “very soon” of US troops from Syria, taking the Pentagon and State Department by surprise. US Defense Secretary James Mattis said on Thursday: “The Turkish actions in northern Syria — let me be specific here — Afrin area have distracted the (Syrian Democratic Forces) from the fight going against the remnants of ISIS.”
Turkish analysts did not think France would substitute its soldiers should the US pull out. “Under such tense security circumstances for the region, France cannot preserve the security of its own soldiers in Manbij,” Oytun Orhan, a Syria analyst at the Ankara-based think tank ORSAM, told Arab News.
He interpreted the French stance as wanting to ensure the YPG did not release any Daesh-linked French fighters. “France does not want that these terrorists released by the YPG for fear they can return home and wage terror attacks,” he said.
Turkey will host a tripartite summit on Syria with Russia and Iran next week.