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US-Turkey tensions overshadow appeal for anti-IS unity

Tillerson urged allies on Tuesday to stay focused on fighting the Islamic State group. [Getty]

Date of publication: 14 February, 2018

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US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged allies on Tuesday to stay focused on fighting IS, saying Turkey's military offensive in northern Syria had "detracted" from the anti-IS battle.

The Trump administration's appeal for unity fell on a critical deaf ear on Tuesday as the latest expression of US support for Kurdish rebels in Syria enraged America's NATO ally Turkey.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged allies on Tuesday to stay focused on fighting the Islamic State group, saying Turkey's military offensive in northern Syria had "detracted" from the anti-IS battle.

Tillerson spoke at a ministerial meeting in Kuwait of the US-led military coalition that has been fighting IS in Iraq and Syria, being held in parallel with a conference on reconstruction in Iraq.

"The end of major combat operations does not mean we have achieved the enduring defeat of ISIS," he told the meeting in Kuwait City, using an alternative acronym for the Islamic State group.

"ISIS remains a serious threat to the stability of the region, our homelands and other parts of the globe. Without continued attention and support from coalition members, we risk the return of extremist groups like ISIS liberated areas of Iraq and Syria and their spread to new locations."

Erdogan bashed the United States for proposing to send $550 million dollars in new assistance to Syrian opposition forces.

While Tillerson sounded the alarm over distractions, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan bashed the United States for proposing to send $550 million dollars in new assistance to Syrian opposition forces.

Most, if not all, will go to Syrian Kurds, counted on by the US to defeat IS forces, but seen by Turkey as terrorists in their own right. Turkey has been attacking the Kurds in Syria for the past three weeks, despite US calls for restraint.

'Ottoman slap'

The White House is asking Congress for $300 million "to train, equip, sustain and enable" vetted Syrian opposition groups to defeat the Islamic State. It wants $250 million for a border security force that would stem the flow of extremist fighters.

"If we are together in NATO, the United States has to abide by NATO rules as much as Turkey," Erdogan said. "If a terror organisation is attacking your ally, as a NATO member you have to stand against this."

Erdogan also took aim at comments from a US commander who said the United States and its partners in Syria would hit back if attacked.

"To those who say, 'If they hit us, we will respond with force', it is clear that they have never experienced the Ottoman slap," Erdogan said.

Erdogan's angry comments set the stage for contentious talks to come when Tillerson visits Ankara later this week.

US officials already expected the Friday discussions would be difficult and had sought to soothe Erdogan's anger by stressing transparency in their support of the Kurds and commitment to Turkey's security.

But the proposed new assistance to the Kurds, outlined Monday in the Trump administration's budget request, clearly undermined the calming effort.

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