By Nick Wadhams and Jonathan Stearns
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Turkey’s president for 3 1/2 hours in Ankara seeking to ease tensions inflamed by American support for Kurdish forces in Syria even as Turkey conducts military operations against them.
The Thursday evening meeting — which Tillerson attended alone, with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu translating for him and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — came on the last stop of the secretary’s five-nation swing through the Middle East.
On returning to his hotel after 11 p.m., Tillerson had no immediate comment on the meeting, but the State Department said in a statement that he and Erdogan “engaged in a productive and open conversation.” Earlier in the day, Tillerson told reporters that “our endpoint objectives are completely aligned” but “we have some differences about tactically how to achieve that endpoint objective.”
The chief aim of Tillerson’s trip to Turkey is to come to some sort of accommodation with Erdogan over the Syria conflict. The U.S. continues to back the Syrian Kurdish YPG, which has been a loyal ally in the fight against Islamic State. That has enraged Turkey, which labels the group a terrorist organization and has invaded Syria to combat it.
The incursion has created an unprecedented military face-off between the two largest armies in NATO, with U.S. forces fighting alongside the YPG in northeastern Syria while Turkey attacks it to the west.
“We are finding common ground, and there are areas of uncommon ground where sometimes war just gives you bad alternatives to choose from,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said in Brussels, where he’s attending a meeting of defense ministers from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, including Turkey. He said the U.S. and Turkey have shown “absolute honesty and transparency with one another” throughout the strife.
Common ground was hard to identify after Erdogan gave a speech to Parliament on Feb. 13 predicting that he and Tillerson would have “tough talks” about Syria. The U.S. has been urging Turkey to rein back its offensive against the Kurds.
Erdogan also had harsh words for Lieutenant General Paul Funk, who in an interview with the New York Times had threatened retaliation if U.S. forces were hit by Turkey.
“It’s obvious that those who say, ‘If you hit us, we’ll hit back hard,’ have never in their lives gotten an Ottoman slap,” Erdogan said. “If those who come and go as they like through Turkey think they’re going to go stirring things up in places without paying for it, they’ll soon see that’s not the case.”
Turkey is viewed as a critical NATO 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.
However, the contours of the relationship have changed since Turkey’s government suppressed a coup attempt and President Donald Trump won election. Visiting Ankara a year ago, Tillerson was repeatedly criticized by Cavusoglu as they stood side by side at a press conference.