During his first trip to Turkey as secretary of state, Rex Tillerson said the U.S. and its NATO ally were struggling with "difficult choices" on a strategy to defeat the Islamic State in Syria.
The U.S. has been trying to balance its reliance on Turkey in the fight against ISIS with its support for Kurdish fighters in northern Syria — which infuriates Turkey. Tillerson said he and Turkish leaders discussed options for how to clear the extremist group from its remaining strongholds, such as Raqqa, and stabilize those areas.
"They are difficult options, let me be very frank. These are not easy decisions," Tillerson said at a joint news conference Thursday in Ankara with his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu.
Still, the secretary of state declared there is "no space" between the two nations in their commitment to the mission.
The remarks punctuated a day of delicate discussions for the American diplomat, who is in Ankara to meet with Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The visit follows months of political upheaval and a series of devastating terrorist attacks that have left Turkey reeling — and at times at odds with the U.S.
Hints of those points of contention arose during the conference, as Cavusoglu took issue with the arrest in the U.S. of an executive with Turkey's state-run Halkbank who is accused of violating U.S. sanctions on Iran. The foreign minister described the arrest as a "political" maneuver stemming from what he called the former prosecuting attorney's close ties with supporters of controversial cleric Fethullah Gulen.
Erdogan blames Gulen for orchestrating a failed coup attempt in July. The cleric lives in the U.S. and has been a flashpoint for frictions between the two countries. Cavusoglu said Thursday that he expects the U.S. will be taking "concrete steps" toward Gulen's extradition to Turkey.
Tillerson's trip also comes as Turkey grapples with other major issues both domestic and international — such as strained relations with the EU and concerns that a referendum next month will give Erdogan too much power. Here's a closer look at some of them:
Constitutional Reform Or Power Grab?
Turkey's relations with the European Union are badly strained, with Erdogan comparing Germans and other Europeans to "Nazis and Fascists" after Turkish political events in several European cities were canceled. Those campaign rallies were aimed at getting Turks living in Europe to vote in favor of constitutional changes to give Erdogan broad new executive powers. A number of Western officials have warned that Turkey appears to be heading toward "one-man rule," which Erdogan vehemently denies.
The vote is set for April 16, after which Erdogan has suggested Turks might want to hold another vote — on whether Turkey should continue to pursue its long-stalled effort to join the EU. Analysts suggest both Turkish and European politicians see the current feud as politically advantageous but warn that longer-term damage, both political and economic, could result if ties don't improve.
The Kurdish Question
Turkey's ongoing military conflict with outlawed Kurdish militants from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, has destroyed many neighborhoods in Turkey's largely Kurdish southeast. The conflict has also fueled Turkish anger at Washington for working with Syrian Kurdish fighters in the anti-ISIS campaign.
The Pentagon sees the fighters as an effective ground force against a dangerous enemy, with a difficult campaign to oust ISIS from its de facto capital, Raqqa, gearing up. But the Turks see the Syrian Kurds as terrorists, allies of the PKK who are intent on establishing a contiguous Kurdish-controlled zone in northern Syria, something Ankara cannot tolerate.
Turkey has made suggestions for replacing the Kurdish units with other fighters, none of which has drawn a positive response from Washington. Turkey has threatened to attack Kurdish positions in northern Syria if they don't withdraw from certain areas. Washington is keen to keep Turkey on board as part of the coalition, which launches many of its anti-ISIS air strikes from Turkey's Incirlik air base. But it has thus far shown no willingness to abandon the Kurdish fighters, who operate as part of a mixed Kurdish and Arab force known as the SDF, the Syrian Defense Force.
Post-Coup Animosities Persist
As Thursday's news conference underscored, the failed military coup that rocked Turkey on July 15 continues to be a source of tension between Ankara and Washington.
Turkey is firmly convinced that Gulen, a cleric who has lived for years in Pennsylvania, was behind the uprising that left nearly 300 people dead before it was put down. Ankara has sent boxes of what it calls clear and convincing evidence of Gulen's involvement to Washington, but complains that the Justice Department hasn't acted on its extradition request, either under the Obama or Trump administrations.
The Turkish government's frustration has also fueled significant anti-American sentiment among ordinary Turks, many of whom appear to believe that Gulen is, or was, a CIA asset. Such conspiracy theories often include suspicions that the U.S. either had a hand in or at least had advance knowledge of the coup, which U.S. officials have denied.
Turkey has been under a state of emergency since shortly after the coup attempt, and the government has mounted a massive purge of the military, police, judiciary and civil service — more than 130,000 people suspended, sacked or facing charges. The prime minister recently said he expects the current emergency to be extended for another three months before it expires on April 18. Other officials say no decision on extending the emergency has been taken yet.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has made his first official visit to Turkey. He met with the Turkish president and others while tensions between the allies are growing. Turkey's a key partner in the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, yet the two sides disagree about how to manage that war, specifically the role that Kurdish fighters should play.
The U.S. relies on Kurdish fighters in Syria, and that makes Turkey very uncomfortable. Kurdish militias are also fighting the Turkish government inside Turkey. At a news conference, Tillerson did not have any breakthroughs to report.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
REX TILLERSON: What we discussed today were options that are available to us. They are difficult options. Let me be very frank. These are not easy decisions. They are difficult choices that have to be made. So this has been very good. The conversations today were very frank, very candid.
SHAPIRO: NPR's Peter Kenyon joins us now from Turkey. Hi, Peter.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.
SHAPIRO: It sounds like Secretary Tillerson is learning the diplomatic speak - frank and candid. Often that's a euphemism for disagreements, maybe even shouting matches. (Laughter) What do we know about how this conversation went?
KENYON: Well, there weren't any joint remarks with President Erdogan. In fact, the press that traveled from Washington was kept not just out of the room but out of the palace and out of the grounds. They were outside on the main gate waiting. So if there was any shouting, they probably wouldn't have heard it. When there were public remarks with the foreign minister, Tillerson suggested that Turkey didn't get what it wanted.
SHAPIRO: And explain what Turkey wanted.
KENYON: Well, the big issue at the moment is this question of U.S. support for Syrian Kurdish fighters in the battle against ISIS. The Pentagon likes these fighters. They see them as very effective ground troops. But Turkey sees them as allies of Kurdish militants here in Turkey, and there's a conflict going on here. So they call this a severe security threat. Tillerson heard them out. He said more talks are coming. Various options are on the table, he says, but that of course isn't what the Turks were hoping to hear.
SHAPIRO: OK, so Turkey didn't get what it wanted. On the other side, what did Washington want out of this meeting?
KENYON: Well, Tillerson was quite clear on one thing. They want to keep using the Turkish air bases to launch their airstrikes against ISIS. He said it makes a big difference. In the past 18 months, there's been a 25 percent jump in the number of strikes they've been able to carry out without adding any aircraft just 'cause they're so much closer. The U.S. wants to keep using those bases. Turkey's threatened to cut them off, but so far, it's let them keep going.
And then there's other questions about controlling the border, keeping foreign fighters out of Syria. And of course the giant elephant in the room is for Turkey to remain a loyal ally of NATO and not shift towards Russia.
SHAPIRO: As we mentioned, tensions between these two allies - the U.S. and Turkey - are growing. Was there any progress on some of the other tension points between Turkey and the U.S.?
KENYON: Not that we could tell - no resolution on Turkey's demand for the extradition of Fethullah Gulen. He's the U.S.-based cleric. Turkey says he was behind last summer's failed coup. Gulen denies it. Turkey says the U.S. should at least lock him up while it considers the extradition request. All Tillerson had to say was that Attorney General Jeff Sessions would be reviewing the evidence, and that's pretty much what the Obama administration used to say.
Now, one thing the government here will note as a positive and civil rights groups, I must say, will find very negative is there was no public mention of Turkey's crackdown on the media or political dissent. And so that's a change in tone Ankara hopes the Trump administration continues.
But probably the most pressing issue's got to be this question of fighting ISIS in Syria using these Kurdish troops. And that's because there's a big offensive gearing up now to clear ISIS out of its de facto capital, Raqqa. As things stand, it looks like the Kurds will be part of that operation, and that's going to leave Turkey unhappy. And a lot of people wonder just how that unhappiness will be displayed.
SHAPIRO: NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul - thanks, Peter.
KENYON: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.