Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has called on Joe Biden to back Turkey in its fight against terrorism, accusing the US of supporting PKK insurgents who Turkey says murdered 13 civilians in a cave in northern Iraq. Erdogan said the US was “with them and behind them, pure and simple,” after the US State Department sidestepped actually placing the blame on the PKK in its original statement.
The 13 civilians were discovered dead during Turkey’s latest military operation (Claw-Eagle 2) against the PKK, a Kurdish separatist group, which took place between the 10th and 14th February. According to Turkey, 51 terrorists were killed during the operation, and over 50 terrorist sites (including ammunition depots) were destroyed. Since the operation, hundreds of people have been arrested in Turkey for having connections with the PKK.
Erdoğan’s controversial remarks come after the State department released a statement which did not directly blame the PKK, instead saying “if reports of the death of Turkish civilians at the hands of the PKK, a designated terrorist organisation, are confirmed, we condemn this action in the strongest possible terms.”
In response, the US ambassador was summoned to Turkey, Erdoğan gave a fiery speech criticising the US and calling its statement a ‘joke’, and the Turkish Foreign Minister Melvüt Çavuşoğlu expressed Turkey’s discomfort over the statement in a phone call with Anthony Blinken, America’s secretary of state. After the phone call, the State Department released a statement which directly condemned the PKK for the violence.
The tension is another example of the Biden administration’s troubling relations with countries in the Middle East. The new administration has already ruffled feathers in Saudi Arabia and Israel, and has been criticised by the previous Secretary of State for giving what he says is a ‘gift to the Iranians’ through its thoughtless handling of the Yemeni Civil War. Biden is also yet to call Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which President Trump did on his second day in office.
Turkey has been a growing power in the Middle East, especially since it launched ‘Operation Peace Spring’ in 2019, an ongoing effort which sees Turkey occupy Syrian land adjacent to its border to ensure the security of Turkish citizens. Turkey also plays an active role in Libya, where it supports the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA).
Turkey’s influence and power makes it a vital part of NATO, which is why Erdoğan said during his recent speech that if the US “wants to continue our alliance globally and at NATO, then [it] must stop siding with terrorists.”
“The blood of innocent people martyred in northern Iraq is on the hands of all defending, supporting and sympathising with PKK terrorists,” declared Erdoğan, accusing the US of being complicit with the armed group. This statement is not entirely untrue; during its fight against ISIS, the US armed various Kurdish groups, some of which had links to the PKK. For the Biden administration, losing Turkey as an ally would be disastrous, as the influence and power it wields over the Middle East is almost unmatched. This is especially true after the administration has distanced itself from Saudi Arabia and Israel, which Trump supported strongly.