Obama Fails to Back Erdogan: Tells Him to Stop Shelling Kurds

White House report of telephone conversation shows Obama calling for restraint from Turkish leader

Sun, Feb 21, 2016
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The White House has published a report (attached below) of a telephone conversation on 19th February 2016 between Obama and Erdogan.

The report is being read by some as signalling support for Turkey in its confrontation with Syria, the Russians and the Kurds.

In my opinion that is a misinterpretation and the report if anything suggests the opposite.

The key words in the report are these:

“President Obama stressed that YPG forces should not seek to exploit circumstances in this area to seize additional territory, and urged Turkey to show reciprocal restraint by ceasing artillery strikes in the area.

(Underlining added)

These words do not imply unequivocal support for Turkey and certainly do not countenance a Turkish invasion of Syria, whether to fight the Kurdish militia, the Russians or the Syrian army.

Rather they are a call for the Turks and the Kurds to exercise restraint and to cease hostile actions against each other.

That is the classic response of a politician who wants to close a crisis down rather than stir it up - which is exactly what Obama has been trying to do for the last few weeks.  

Though Obama is clearly furious at the unravelling of his regime change policy in Syria - as shown by his increasingly tortuous and dissonant language whenever he now discusses Russia’s actions in Syria - he absolutely does not want the crisis in Syria to spin out of control in ways that might damage the Democrats’ chances of holding the White House in November.

Obama undoubtedly has not forgotten - even if some of his neocon critics have - that it was not his “weakness” that prevented the US launching air strikes on Syria in August 2013.  It was overwhelming public opposition, and the certainty of defeat in the House of Representatives. 

If that was the situation in August 2013 in the aftermath of the chemical attack on Ghouta, it is doubly so now.  

Neither the US military nor the US public will support a military confrontation with Russia over Syria in order to pull Erdogan’s and the Saudis’ jihadi chestnuts out of the fire.  Attempting such a thing would provoke a storm that could easily deliver the White House to the Republicans. 

That is quite apart from the huge risks involved in a military stand-off with the Russians - concerning which see here and here -  which are causing even some former supporters of military action ub Syria to back off (see for example this editorial in the Financial Times which admits that following Russia’s intervention in Syria that option is off the table).

The source of the misunderstanding about the White House report of the Obama-Erdogan conversation is that it contains statements about “the unwavering commitment of the United States to Turkey’s national security as a NATO Ally” and calls “on Russia and the Assad regime to halt airstrikes against moderate opposition forces”.

In reality these are either cliches or simply restatements of existing policy. 

A commitment to “Turkey’s national security as a NATO Ally” does not translate into support for a Turkish adventure in Syria, whilst the US has been demanding an end to Russian air strikes on what it calls “the moderate opposition” ever since Russian bombing in Syria started.

One thing the White House report shows which came out of the conversation will have alarmed and angered Erdogan greatly.

Whilst the White House reports Obama pledging to cooperate with Erdogan to “fight against all forms of terrorism, including the PKK” (the Kurdish Workers Party - the Kurdish force resisting the Turkish authorities in Turkey itself) the report shows that Obama conspicuously failed to say the same thing about the YPG (the Kurdish People’s Protection Units - the Kurdish force fighting the Islamic State in Syria).

Erdogan lumps the PKK and the YPG together as terrorist organisations and claims they are in fact one and the same.  Obama disagrees and distinguishes what he says is the non-terrorist YPG from the terrorist PKK.

Not only would this have been the biggest point of dispute between Obama and Erdogan but it would not be surprising if it was the issue that took up most of the time during their conversation.

Marko Marjanovic has provided Russia Insider with a masterly account of how in northern Syria the US and Turkey are now working against each other.  

The White House report of Obama’s conversation with Erdogan does not disprove Marko Marjanovic’s thesis. It confirms it.


This is a report of a telephone conversation between US President Obama and Turkish President Erdogan which was first published by the White House:

The President spoke today by phone with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan about the situation in Syria and U.S.-Turkish cooperation in the fight against terrorism.  

The President condemned and offered condolences for the February 17 terrorist attack in Ankara, which killed and wounded both military personnel and civilians, and the February 18 terrorist attack against a Turkish military convoy in Diyarbakir Province.  

President Obama expressed concern about recent Syrian regime advances in northwest Syria and urgently called for a halt to actions that heighten tensions with Turkey and with moderate opposition forces in northern Syria, and undermine our collective efforts in northern Syria to degrade and defeat ISIL. 

President Obama stressed that YPG forces should not seek to exploit circumstances in this area to seize additional territory, and urged Turkey to show reciprocal restraint by ceasing artillery strikes in the area.  

He emphasized the unwavering commitment of the United States to Turkey’s national security as a NATO Ally.  

The two leaders expressed their support for the understanding reached in Munich last week on the cessation of hostilities in Syria and called on Russia and the Assad regime to halt airstrikes against moderate opposition forces.  

The leaders pledged to deepen cooperation in the fight against all forms of terrorism, including the PKK, and reiterated their shared goal of degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL.

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