Riyadh, Saudi Arabia – As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo crossed the Middle East this week to explain the US military withdrawal from Syria, he repeated that he was "confident" and "optimistic" about the fact that he was approaching an agreement with Turkey on a plan to mutually acceptable exit.
But a pugnacious tweet from President Trump on Sunday night that promises to "devastate" the Turkish economy if Ankara attacks the Kurds supported by the United States has revealed a much wider gap between the two parties and has provoked a new round of recriminations from Turkey.
The United States "will economically devastate Turkey if it hits the Kurds," Trump wrote on Twitter.
Hours later, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu exploded Trump's "threatening language" and claimed that his country "will not be frightened or frightened", adding: "You will not go anywhere threatening the economy of the Turkey".
The row marked the second time in a week that the White House intervened in the negotiations conducted by the State Department in a way that infuriated Turkey and captured US diplomats.
In an attempt to explain Trump's tweets on Monday, Pompey told reporters in Riyadh that he believed Trump meant that the United States would impose sanctions on Turkey if he attacked the Kurds, but he did not know it for sure.
"I assume you're talking about this sort of thing, but you should ask him," said Pompey, who noted that he had not talked with Trump about the tweet.
It was not the first case of mixed messaging of the White House and the State Department on the sensitive issue of leaving Syria.
Last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan broke out after national security adviser John Bolton made conditional comments on the withdrawal of US troops from Syria on the protection of Syrian Kurdish fighters who fought alongside US forces against the Islamic State. The government of Turkey believes that Syrian Kurdish fighters, also known as YPG, are part of a terrorist movement and have promised to attack them after the United States has withdrawn.
Bolton intended to refer specifically to the Kurdish US troops, but he had courage using inaccurate language and appearing to dictate to Erdogan, US and Turkish officials said.
The misstep angered James Jeffrey, the US special envoy for the coalition against the Islamic State, who had been immersed in negotiations with the Turks when Bolton's comment shocked the talks, according to three people who were familiar with the negotiations.
Trump's sudden order to withdraw from Syria in December surprised US allies and left questions about the pace and scope of the withdrawal. Trump originally said that American troops were "going" now, but since then he said it would happen "slowly" after the United States secured a lasting defeat of the Islamic State.
Pompey said the US messages on concerns over Turkish attacks on the Kurds have never changed.
"The administration was very consistent with our request that the Turks do not persecute Kurds in inappropriate ways," said Pompey. "If they are terrorists, we take care to bring down the extremists wherever we find them … I think the president's comments this morning are consistent with this."
Trump's tweet included the request that Turkey create a "safe 20 miles zone". After the tweet, the Turkish lira lost about 0.84% of its value against the dollar.
Pompey said that Turkish and US diplomats were negotiating such an agreement this week but that nothing has been finalized.
"We want to make sure that the people who fought with us to bring down the caliphate and the ISIS have security and also that the terrorists [in] Syria is not able to attack Turkey – those are our twin goals, "he told reporters after meeting Saudi Arabia leaders in Riyadh.
"Both sides are trying to negotiate the breadth of a potential safe zone," said Soner Cagaptay, a Turkish scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "The idea is that Turkish troops and forces supported by Ankara would move into rural areas in the security zone, while the YPG would maintain control of some of the Kurdish-majority cities." This would be a sharing agreement that could be acceptable on all sides, if the United States is behind it ".
Cavusoglu has expressed its support for the safe 20-mile zone on Monday, stating that it has long been a Turkish target.
"They banished this idea after seeing the determination of Turkey," Cavusoglu said. "We are not against it."
With a potential space for an agreement, Cagaptay said that a key factor will be to avoid diplomatic gaffes. "If there's one thing that makes the blood of the Turks boil, it's a language that equates Kurds and YPGs," he said.
Anne Gearan contributed to this relationship.