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Sparks fly as Trump threatens 'economic devastation' against Turkey

US president advances idea of a 'safe zone' between Turkish and Kurdish forces, a plan better received in Ankara than his threat
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, and US President Donald Trump seem at loggerheads over protecting Kurds (AFP)

In a tweet threatening to "devastate Turkey economically", Donald Trump has provoked an angry response from Ankara and also advanced the idea of creating a "safe zone" between Turkish forces and Washington's Syrian Kurdish partners.

"Starting the long overdue pullout from Syria while hitting the little remaining ISIS territorial caliphate hard, and from many directions. Will attack again from existing nearby base if it reforms. Will devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds," Trump tweeted late Monday, comments that were not well received in Ankara.

However, Trump added the possibility of setting up a "20-mile safe zone" between the Turkish military and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is dominated by mostly the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), a group Turkey considers terrorists.

In response, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Monday Turkey would "not be intimidated by threats", but added that he was not opposed to the creation of a safe zone. However, Cavusoglu said it was "very inappropriate to discuss these matters on Twitter".

“Facing a choice between economic hardship and counterterrorism, Turkish people would choose starvation as they did in the past and go after these terrorists," he said.

Turkey considers the YPG an extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), who have waged a decades-long guerilla war with the Turkish state. However, as part of the SDF, the US has supported them in fighting the Islamic State group (IS) in northern Syria.

Asked about the incident by reporters in Saudi Arabia, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared unable to explain the president's Twitter comments.

"You'll have to ask the president," said Pompeo.

"We have applied economic sanctions in many places, I assume he is speaking about those kinds of things. You'll have to ask him," Pompeo said, adding he had not spoken with Ankara since Trump's comment.

"I don't think it changes the president's decision for our 2,000 uniformed personnel to depart Syria," he added.

He also said that he supported the creation of a safe zone. "If we can get the space and the security arrangements right it would be a good thing for everyone in the region," he said.

Syrian battles

Turkey has previously reacted angrily to suggestions that Trump's plan to withdraw troops was conditional on the safety of the SDF.

Ahead of Trump's move, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to launch another operation in Syria targeting the YPG, who were previously driven out of the northwestern district of Afrin.

Erdogan, who has welcomed the pullout plan, last week accused Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton, of a "grave mistake" in demanding that Ankara provide assurances on the safety of the Kurdish fighters before Washington withdraws its troops.

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The president's spokesman Ibrahim Kalin tweeted on Monday that "terrorists" could not be "partners & allies" to the US.

"Turkey expects the US to honor our strategic partnership and doesn't want it to be shadowed by terrorist propaganda," Kalin said, adding that it is a "fatal mistake" to equate all Syrian Kurds with the YPG.

"Turkey fights against terrorists, not Kurds. We will protect Kurds and other Syrians against all terrorist threats."

The SDF's fight against IS is ongoing. On Sunday, one of the group's officials said IS militants are "living their final moments" in the last enclave they hold near the Iraqi border, where SDF forces are attacking them.

A defeat of the militants in the enclave would wipe out IS's territorial foothold on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River.

On Saturday, more than 600 people were evacuated from the remaining IS holdout in eastern Syria, a monitor said, as US-backed fighters prepared for a final assault on the area.

Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights head Rami Abdel Rahman said that several dozen militants were among those evacuated to areas held by the Kurdish-Arab alliance.

Abdel Rahman said about 16,000 people, including 760 IS fighters, have fled the area since the start of December, though this marked the first time the SDF and the coalition provided buses, suggesting a deal was struck between the warring sides.

The United Nations said on Friday that overall about 25,000 people have fled the violence over the last six months as the die-hard militants have battled to defend their dwindling bastions. 

An estimated 2,000 civilians remain trapped in the area around the town of Hajin, the United Nations said.

The US-led coalition on Saturday fired more than 20 missiles against militant positions, the Observatory said.

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