The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Turkey accuses U.S. of supporting Kurdish militants after 13 Turkish hostages are killed

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of parliament in Ankara last week. (Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Presidential Press Office/Reuters)

ISTANBUL — Simmering hostility between Turkey's government and the Biden administration burst into the open Monday when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused the United States of supporting Kurdish militants and his Foreign Ministry summoned the American ambassador.

The latest outburst came a day after Ankara said that 13 Turkish hostages being held in northern Iraq by the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, had been found executed by their captors. The State Department issued a statement condemning the killings but suggesting the PKK’s involvement had yet to be confirmed.

Erdogan dismissed the statement as “ridiculous” and criticized ongoing U.S. support for Kurdish fighters in Syria who are affiliated with the Iraq-based PKK. “You are behind them,” he said.

Immediate escalation appeared to have been averted later Monday, when Secretary of State Antony Blinken made what U.S. officials said was a previously scheduled call to Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. Based on what officials described as newly received information, Blinken expressed condolences for the Turkish hostage deaths and said “PKK terrorists bear responsibility,” according to a State Department readout of the call.

But Biden, who during his campaign called Erdogan an “autocrat,” has yet to hold an initial call with the Turkish leader. Overall, he has struck a different tone from his predecessor, whose warm personal relationship with the Turkish leader often papered over long-standing disagreements over Syria policy and Ankara’s purchase of a Russian missile defense system.

During his confirmation hearing, Blinken said Turkey was “not acting as an ally” and suggested there might be additional sanctions for the Russian weapons purchase. Turkey has been barred from participating in the U.S. F-35 advanced jet fighter production and purchase program, and the United States has prohibited most new weapons sales to the NATO ally.

Asked last week whether the administration would consider a proposal made by Turkey’s defense minister to only partially deploy the Russia S-400 missile defense system, State Department spokesman Ned Price said that “our policy on the S-400 has not changed. We’ve been very clear on that.”

This month, the Biden administration has twice publicly criticized Turkey on human rights issues. On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of 50 senators wrote to Biden urging him to “emphasize to President Erdogan” the importance of reversing his “authoritarian course.”

At the Pentagon, spokesman John F. Kirby said that about 900 U.S. troops in Syria would continue working with Syrian Kurds, whom he described as “partner forces,” to defeat Islamic State remnants there.

A senior Biden administration official played down the matter of Biden not yet having spoken with Erdogan, noting that he has not been in office even a month and has been primarily focused on domestic issues.

“We know there has been frustration from President Erdogan about not having received” a call, the official said, “but frankly, there are a lot of NATO allies . . . and other foreign leaders . . . that the President has not called yet either.”

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under administration-set rules, also noted Blinken’s Sunday call and an earlier call between national security adviser Jake Sullivan and his Turkish counterpart, Ibrahim Kalin.

The message sent in those calls, the official said, “is multifaceted. There are a number of areas where we want to cooperate with Turkey. It is a NATO ally, a strategic partner, and has a critical role to play” in crisis areas including Syria and Libya. “We value what Turkey has been doing as a NATO ally.”

“At the same time, it is also true that we have challenges with Turkey,” the official said, citing the S-400 purchase and the Kurds.

But Asli Aydintasbas, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the administration may be forced to reckon with the complexities of the relationship with Turkey sooner than it had intended. The plan, she said, had been “to put everything on hold for six months or so, and not to engage in a grand bargain or reset” with Turkey.

The dispute over the S-400, the administration’s commitment to criticize human rights abuses and the situation in Syria, however, may lead to further unexpected skirmishes.

Turkey, where millions of Kurds live in the southeastern part of the country bordering Iraq and Syria, has been engaged in a low-level war for decades against PKK insurgents.

In recent years, it has launched military operations against PKK enclaves in northern Iraq and against U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish fighters it says are also affiliated with the PKK.

Since its alliance with the Syrian Kurds — who form the majority of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces organized under the Obama administration — the United States has sought to keep its affiliation with them separate from its relations with Turkey.

The United States has designated the PKK as a terrorist organization and has long argued with Turkey over whether it has any organic affiliation with the Syrian Kurds.

But Turkey — which says they are one and the same — has continued incursions against the U.S. partners in Syria, as well as attacks against PKK forces in northern Iraq. The latest operation in Iraq began on Feb. 10, focused on a region north of the Iraqi city of Dahuk. On Sunday, Turkey said that 13 Turkish hostages, including soldiers and police officers, many or all of whom had been held for years by the PKK, had been found executed inside a cave.

The PKK acknowledged that it held prisoners but denied they had been executed, saying they were killed during clashes with the Turkish military.

The deaths sparked revulsion in Turkey but also led to questions about whether they had occurred during a failed rescue attempt. On Monday, Turkish authorities announced they had arrested more than 700 people in Turkey over alleged links to the PKK — raising fears the government would use the tragedy to further crack down on pro-Kurdish figures.