Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the U.S. and Turkey face “difficult choices” over the best way to combat the Islamic State, highlighting their stark disagreements on whether Kurdish forces should play a role in the battle to retake the jihadists’ stronghold in Syria.
Tillerson, in the Turkish capital for the day, is seeking to shore up support from a crucial NATO ally in the fight to expel Islamic State from Syria and Iraq. The U.S.-led coalition battling the group is backing Kurdish forces as it prepares a campaign against the city of Raqqa. The Turkish government doesn’t want the Kurds in the fight, seeing them as an extension of Kurdish militants waging a separatist war in Turkey.
“What we discussed today were options that are available to us,” Tillerson said Thursday when asked about the participation of Kurdish YPG forces in a joint news conference with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. “They are difficult options, let me be very frank. These are not easy decisions. They are difficult choices that have to be made.”
Cavusoglu minced no words in expressing Turkish displeasure with the U.S. support for the Kurdish forces, saying it had impacted ties with the Obama administration. “It isn’t right to cooperate with a terrorist organization while fighting against another one,” he said.
The interaction between the two men at the press briefing reflected the changing contours of the bilateral relationship in the months since Turkey’s government suppressed a coup attempt and President Donald Trump won election. Cavusoglu repeatedly criticized the U.S. with Tillerson standing right next to him — over its support for the Kurds and refusal to extradite a U.S.-based cleric Turkey says was responsible for the failed coup — while the top U.S. diplomat emphasized areas of unity.
Turkey is viewed as a critical North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally given its strategic geographic position between Europe and Asia, a bridge that has served as an entryway for refugees fleeing violence in Syria. The country has NATO’s second-largest military and hosts about 1,500 American military personnel and aircraft — as well as troops from Italy, Spain and elsewhere — at Incirlik Air Base, a staging point for the fight against Islamic State.
Tillerson made no mention of Turkey’s slide toward authoritarianism under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, or the post-coup attempt crackdown in which more than 100,000 people have been fired from their jobs, suspended or jailed, including prominent journalists, activists and academics. He didn’t address the referendum Turks will hold next month on whether to grant Erdogan even more power. In a break from past precedent, Tillerson isn’t meeting opposition leaders on his trip, and U.S. officials say the top U.S. priority now is fighting Islamic State.
“I get a sense that the strategy of the U.S. is to try to manage the relationship with a volatile ally, to do our best to contain the fallout from Turkey,” said Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “There is a difficulty on how exactly to handle something like this because no one’s kicking Turkey out of NATO anytime soon.”
Erdogan, whom Tillerson met for about two hours on Thursday, has been blunt about his opposition toward U.S. support for Kurdish fighters. Their separatist aims are shared by a militant Kurdish group that has been fighting for autonomy in Turkey’s southeast for more than three decades. In an interview with Bloomberg last year, he said the U.S. was “doing wrong before the eyes of the world” and endangering Turkey’s future by giving them weapons.
Speaking to reporters before the trip, a senior State Department official said an assault on Raqqa must be “militarily viable” though the U.S. was aware of the Turkish government’s concerns about American support for the Kurdish fighters. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as part of the ground rules for the call.
Erdogan has accused U.S.-based preacher and former ally Fethullah Gulen of organizing the coup and has become increasingly impatient with the U.S. for not turning him over. The State Department argues that the courts must handle Turkey’s extradition request.
Cavusoglu accused a former U.S. prosecutor of being “closely linked” to Gulen and repeated the extradition demand. “We expect at least some administrative measures to be taken and a temporary arrest” of the imam in the U.S., he said. Tillerson also met with Prime Minister Binali Yildirim before his session with Erdogan.
Turkish officials are also expected to protest the arrest in the U.S. of a senior executive at one of Turkey’s largest state-owned banks on charges of conspiring to evade trade sanctions on Iran. Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a deputy chief executive officer at Turkiye Halk Bankasi AS, is accused of conspiring with Reza Zarrab, an Iranian-Turkish gold trader, to launder hundreds of millions of dollars through the U.S. financial system on behalf of Iran and its companies. He was arrested Monday.
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