ISTANBUL — Turkey’s foreign minister on Thursday called on the Trump administration to replace its envoy to the anti-Islamic State coalition — the latest sign of Turkish frustration with the U.S. war strategy in Syria amid mounting tensions between the two NATO allies.
Turkey has forcefully protested the Trump administration’s decision to arm a Syrian Kurdish force for an assault on the Islamic State-held city of Raqqa. Turkey regards the force as an arm of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which Ankara and Washington have both listed as a terrorist group.
In an interview with Turkish broadcaster NTV, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu accused U.S. envoy Brett McGurk of “providing support” for the PKK and the Syrian Kurdish force, known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG. “It would be beneficial for this person to change,” Cavusoglu said, referring to McGurk, adding that Turkey “would not meddle in the domestic issues of another country.”
The unusually pointed Turkish attack on an American official came days after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a trip to Washington that was dominated by issues dividing the two countries and that delivered mixed dividends, at best, for the Turkish leader.
While President Trump’s invitation to Erdogan — and his lavish praise for Turkey during the visit — were widely seen as having enhanced Erdogan’s stature at home, the U.S. administration did not appear to budge on any of Erdogan’s most pressing requests, including the demand not to arm the YPG.
The visit was also marred by a violent coda — an attack on protesters outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence in Washington on Tuesday that U.S. officials said was carried out by Erdogan’s presidential guards. Footage of the assault showing protesters being kicked, choked and stomped drew widespread outrage as it was circulated on social media. A video released by Voice of America showed Erdogan watching the protesters being attacked.
A State Department official said Thursday that two members of Erdogan’s security detail were arrested and released. Under international law, foreign officials and their traveling detail cannot be detained.
The incident was considered serious enough that Turkey’s ambassador to the United States was summoned to the State Department on Wednesday to discuss it with Undersecretary Tom Shannon, the official said.
The Turkish Embassy released a statement Wednesday that made no mention of any role played by the presidential guards but said that a group of Turkish American citizens who had gathered to greet Erdogan “responded in self-defense” to a “provocative demonstration.”
On Thursday, in response to the clash outside the residence, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called for the expulsion of Turkey’s ambassador to the United States. “This kind of thing cannot go unresponded to diplomatically,” the senator said in an interview with MSNBC. “We should throw their ambassador the hell out of the United States of America.”
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) joined in on Twitter, calling the violence “unacceptable” and echoing McCain’s demand that the ambassador be sent back to Turkey. “They were assaulting these people on US soil,” McCaskill tweeted.
In Turkey’s vigorous but so far faltering attempts to shift U.S. policy, the government has increasingly taken to blaming disagreements with the Trump administration over Syria on President Barack Obama and, specifically, holdovers from the Obama administration, including McGurk, who has served as envoy to the anti-Islamic State coalition since November 2015.
A State Department spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, said in a statement Thursday that McGurk had the “full support and backing” of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the White House.
“Turkey is a key NATO ally that faces legitimate domestic security concerns emanating from ISIS, PKK, and other designated terrorist organizations,” Nauert said. “We respect those concerns, and continue regular consultations with our NATO ally on this and other topics of mutual importance.” ISIS is an acronym for the Islamic State.
U.S. military officials in the Trump and Obama administrations have concluded that there is no effective alternative to the military plan that relies on the Kurdish fighters — despite Turkey’s insistence that it could muster an equally effective force with Syrian Arab fighters.
Last week, the Trump administration announced that it would arm the YPG — as a delegation of high-level Turkish military and intelligence officials were visiting Washington in advance of Erdogan’s meeting with Trump. In response, Turkish officials told their U.S. counterparts that they reserved the right to step up military action against the YPG in Syria.
On Thursday, Erdogan, speaking in Istanbul, reiterated the warning, saying that “we won’t discuss it or consult with anyone,” according to the Associated Press.
Cavusoglu said Thursday that the Trump administration “did not show any reaction” to the Turkish warning.
“They welcomed it with understanding,” he said.
Carol Morello in Washington contributed to this report.