Turkey hits back at China’s call to stop military action in Syria

Keegan Elmer

Turkey has hit back at China’s criticism of its military incursion into Syria against Kurdish-led forces, saying it strongly disagreed with Beijing’s call for Ankara to “return to the right track”.

In Beijing on Monday, Emin Onen, Turkey’s ambassador to China, also called on Beijing to stand with his country to fight terrorism, reviving tensions over Beijing’s treatment of Uygur Muslims in Xinjiang, and Turkey’s treatment of Kurds.

Onen was responding to comments last week by Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang, urging “Turkey to halt military action and to return to the right track, resolving the issue with political solutions”.

It was a step up from China’s initial call for Turkey to “exercise restraint” and its assertion that Syria’s “sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity must be respected and upheld”.

Kurdish-led forces withdraw from besieged Syria town amid shaky Turkey ceasefire deal

Turkish forces crossed into the border of northern Syria two weeks ago, after US President Donald Trump’s order to withdraw US troops a few days earlier. Turkey’s operation has led to the displacement of an estimated 200,000 people, andan unknown number of civilian casualties.

At the Turkish embassy on Monday, Onen said Turkey did not agree with the ministry’s “right track” statement.

“What we hope for is that China, whether internally or externally, is an anti-terrorist nation. They are a member of the [United Nations] Security Council, so they should understand our present situation,” he said.

Turkey has repeatedly questioned China’s internal anti-terrorism strategy, and raised concerns over its treatment of the Uygur ethnic minority in Xinjiang in China’s far west.

In February, Turkey’s foreign ministry said “a distinction should be made between terrorists and regular people” in China’s counterterrorism efforts.

In May, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called on Turkey to support Beijing’s counterterrorism efforts and “safeguard the overall situation of the strategic cooperation between the two countries”.

Tensions erupted in July when Turkish officials in Beijing rejected a report by state news agency Xinhua that quoted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as saying that people in Xinjiang “live happily”. The officials said the president said he “hopes the people of China’s Xinjiang live happily in peace and prosperity”.

“Certainly we know that China is a country that is fighting against terror ... We [Turkey] are also fighting against ... [Islamic State] and it’s one of the most important issues,” Onen said.

“I believe that between us [Turkey and China], whether in the short or long term, we will not have any problems. Actually our foreign ministries still have very smooth relations.”

China calls on Turkey to halt military incursion in Syria and ‘return to right track’

Li Guofu, a specialist in Middle East affairs at the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing, said China was unlikely to change its position against the use of force.

“The statements of the [foreign ministry] spokesman reflect our foreign policy – we oppose the use of force in international relations. We promote peaceful methods, and dialogue, to resolve bilateral issues,” Li said.

James Dorsey, senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said: “The Turks obviously feel they are finding very little international support, not only in the West, for their incursion into Syria.”

Dorsey said China was caught between “a rock and a hard place”.

“On the one hand, conflict is the last thing they want, and they see this as aggravating conflict rather than resolving it. But on the other hand, it’s the Chinese who have drawn parallels between Turkey and the Kurds and the Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang,” he said.

“Turkey is a particularly sensitive country for China, as it plays an important role for managing the perception of its handling of Xinjiang in the eyes of the international Muslim community.”

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