The Pentagon scrambled on Friday to smooth over ties with Turkey, after comments by a senior general about that country’s recent coup attempt triggered a backlash from Turkish leaders.
Speaking to reporters, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook sought to soften the impact of remarks made earlier in the week by Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. Central Command, which suggested that the failed coup might disrupt the U.S. relationship with a key NATO partner.
“The concern that General Votel expressed, that I think it is fair to say that we all share, is making sure that our operations against ISIL are not impacted,” Cook said, using an acronym for the Islamic State. “We don’t have any indication of problems at this moment in time, and we would just like to maintain that. That was I think what General Votel was expressing yesterday.”
Turkey has been one of the United States’ most important partners in its campaign against the Islamic State, and the Pentagon’s ties with Ankara have also been among its most fraught. While Turkey agreed last year to permit U.S. aircraft striking in Syria to take off from its Incirlik air base, significant tension remains over control of Turkey’s long border with Syria and U.S. support to Kurdish fighters there.
Cook’s remarks come a day after Votel, speaking at a security conference in Colorado, said he was worried about the impact of the July 15 coup attempt. Since that date, Erdogan’s government has launched a far-reaching purge of state institutions, including the military, that many rights advocates and Western officials think has gone too far.
“What I’m concerned about is … first and foremost that it will have an impact on the operations that we do along that very important seam,” Votel said. He also said he was concerned about the impact on relationships with Turkish military leaders, many of whom were detained after the coup.
Those remarks triggered an angry response Friday from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the target of the coup plot, who lashed out during a speech in Ankara at what he said was meddling from the United States.
“Instead of thanking this nation that quashed the coup in the name of democracy, on the contrary, you are taking sides with the coup plotters,” Erdogan said, according to the Associated Press.
Erdogan also made an apparent reference to Votel’s remarks, the AP reported. “It’s not up to you to make that decision. … Know your place,” the Turkish leader said, hinting that U.S. officials may have supported the coup.
Earlier on Friday, Votel issued a statement saying that media reports suggesting he was involved were “completely inaccurate,” saying that Turkey had been a key U.S. partner.
The spat comes at an inopportune time for the Obama administration, as it seeks to accelerate the progress allied forces are making in reclaiming territory from extremist fighters in Iraq and Syria. Cooperation with Turkey, especially the ability to launch flights from Incirlik, has been crucial in Syria, especially in areas such like Manbij, where a major battle is now unfolding.
U.S. operations out of Incirlik were interrupted for several days after the coup, Cook said, but had since been restored. Power was also cut to the base temporarily.
Complicating the situation for U.S. military leaders is the fact that the man Turkish leaders blame for plotting the coup, Fethullah Gulen, resides in Pennsylvania. Turkish officials are pressuring the Obama administration to extradite Gulen to Turkey.
Also on Friday, Cook said that Centcom was examining whether an airstrike in the Manbij area on Thursday had resulted in civilian casualties. It is at least the third time in 10 days that U.S. strikes have resulted in allegations of slain civilians in that same area.