By Daren Butler and Lesley Wroughton
ISTANBUL/RIYADH (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump threatened Turkey with economic devastation if it attacks a U.S.-allied Kurdish militia in Syria, drawing a sharp rebuke from Ankara on Monday and reviving fears of another downturn in ties between the NATO allies.
Relations between the United States and Turkey have long been strained by Washington’s support for the Kurdish YPG, which Turkey views as a terrorist organization that is an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that has for decades waged an insurgency in Turkey.
Trump and President Tayyip Erdogan discussed by phone on Monday the creation of a safe zone in northern Syria cleared of militia groups, the Turkish presidency said, without providing further detail.
Both men emphasized the need to avoid giving any opportunity to elements seeking to block the planned withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, Ankara said.
Trump told Erdogan he wants to address Turkey’s concerns but stressed Ankara must not harm Washington’s Kurdish allies or others who have fought the Islamic State (ISIS) militant group in Syria, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said.
“The president expressed the desire to work together to address Turkey’s security concerns in northeast Syria while stressing the importance to the United States that Turkey does not mistreat the Kurds and other Syrian Democratic Forces with whom we have fought to defeat ISIS,” she said in a statement.
U.S. Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will meet with his Turkish counterpart on Tuesday to continue consultations, Sanders said.
Trump said on Sunday the United States was starting the military pull-out he announced in December but that it would continue to hit Islamic State fighters there.
“Will attack again from existing nearby base if it reforms. Will devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds. Create 20 mile safe zone … Likewise, do not want the Kurds to provoke Turkey,” Trump tweeted.
Asked what Trump meant by economic devastation, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, on a visit to Saudi Arabia, said: “You’ll have to ask the president.”
“We have applied economic sanctions in many places, I assume he is speaking about those kinds of things.”
Ankara is well aware of the cost of strained U.S. ties. A diplomatic crisis last year, when Trump imposed sanctions on two of Erdogan’s ministers and raised tariffs on Turkish metal exports, helped push the Turkish lira to a record low in August.
Having slid as much as 1.6 percent to 5.5450 against the dollar earlier in the day, the lira
Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said Trump should respect Washington’s alliance with Ankara.
“Mr @realDonaldTrump It is a fatal mistake to equate Syrian Kurds with the PKK, which is on the US terrorists list, and its Syria branch PYD/YPG,” spokesman Ibrahim Kalin tweeted.
“Terrorists can’t be your partners & allies. Turkey expects the US to honor our strategic partnership and doesn’t want it to be shadowed by terrorist propaganda.”
Trump gave no details about the safe zone proposal, but Pompeo said Washington wanted to provide security for those who have fought Islamic State and to prevent any attack on Turkey from Syria.
“If we can get the space and the security arrangements right it would be a good thing for everyone in the region,” he said.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Ankara was not against the idea of a secure zone along the border, but said partners and allies should not communicate via social media.
“Nothing can be achieved by threatening Turkey economically. We need to look at how we can coordinate together and how we can solve this,” he said in a news conference with Luxembourg’s foreign minister.
The Kurdish YPG has been a U.S. ally in the fight against the jihadists and it controls swaths of northern Syria. Erdogan has vowed to crush it in the wake of Trump’s decision to pull troops out.
Erdogan’s communications director Fahrettin Altun said: “Turkey will continue its anti-terror fight decisively,” and that it was a protector of the Kurds, not their enemy.
“Terror is terror and it must be eradicated at its source. This is exactly what Turkey is doing in Syria,” he tweeted.
Turkey has swept YPG fighters from Syria’s Afrin region and other areas west of the Euphrates river in military campaigns over the past two years. It is now threatening to strike east of the river, which it has avoided until now, partly to avoid direct confrontation with U.S. forces.
Trump’s withdrawal announcement came as he said U.S. forces had succeeded in their mission to defeat the Islamic State group and were no longer needed.
However, U.S. officials have given mixed messages since then. The U.S.-led coalition said on Friday it had started the pullout but officials said later it involved only equipment, not troops.
(Reporting by Daren Butler in ISTANBUL and Lesley Wroughton in RIYADH; Additional reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen, Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara, Stephen Kalin in Riyadh; Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Robin Pomeroy and Grant McCool)