Istanbul (AFP) - Turkey called Thursday for the removal of the US diplomat coordinating the international coalition fighting the Islamic State group, accusing him of backing Syrian Kurdish militias.
Washington and Ankara are bitterly at odds over US support for the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) in Syria, which Turkey considers a front for outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) rebels.
"Brett McGurk is definitely giving support to the PKK and YPG. It would be useful if this person was replaced," Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told NTV television.
Washington immediately dismissed the idea. In a statement, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said that McGurk "has the full support and backing" of both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and President Donald Trump's White House.
"Special presidential envoy Brett McGurk is leading the diplomatic charge for the D-ISIS Coalition and the administration commends the tremendous work that he has done to date to coordinate and lead the coalition in achieving significant progress against ISIS in Syria, Iraq, and in turning the tide against this barbaric enemy," she added.
Last year, McGurk visited YPG members who controlled the Syrian town of Kobane and was awarded a plaque, drawing Turkey's wrath.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan angrily told Washington at the time to choose between Ankara and "terrorists".
But Ankara is now upbeat about the future of relations with Washington under Trump, with Cavusoglu praising the new administration as "more sincere" after Erdogan's talks with the US leader this week.
Erdogan met Trump at the White House on Tuesday, with the two leaders pledging to improve ties between the NATO allies -- even as Erdogan gave a stern warning about Washington's arming of Kurdish militia in Syria.
"It is absolutely unacceptable to take the YPG-PYD into consideration as partners in the region, and it's going against a global agreement we reached," Erdogan said in Washington, referring to the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, whose armed wing is the YPG.
The United States sees the YPG as the most effective force on the ground in the fight against IS jihadists.
- 'Good luck'-
Turkey is keen to join a future battle to recapture the de facto IS capital of Raqa in Syria, but only if Kurdish militia forces do not participate.
US officials told Ankara that the YPG would not constitute a threat for Turkey and that arms supplied by Washington would be used in Raqa and in the south, not against Turkey, Cavusoglu said.
In an address to Turkish businessmen in Istanbul on Thursday, Erdogan said he told Trump that Ankara would not join any Raqa operation given the YPG's participation.
"I've seen America is very sensitive on the Raqa issue and I said 'good luck', we cannot join an operation with a terror organisation," he said.
Erdogan also said he told Trump that if there were a YPG attack, Ankara would act unilaterally.
"I also said if those terror groups threaten our country we will apply our rules of engagement and do what's necessary ... because we have no time to lose," he said.
The Turkish leader also said he believed Washington "will knock on our door on the issue of Syria," in quotes published by the Hurriyet daily.
McGurk was in northern Syria Tuesday and Wednesday for talks with the leadership of the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Arab and Kurdish fighters, and the YPG, according to a source in the nascent Raqa city civilian council.
The council has been set up to manage the city once IS fighters have been ousted.
The meetings focused on "the plan of attack on Raqa and providing support for people fleeing the fighting," the source said.