Tillerson and Erdogan ‘Talk Turkey’
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said the United States and Turkey must make “difficult” decisions about how to defeat the extremist group Islamic State (IS) in Syria. Speaking at a news conference with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in Ankara on March 30, Tillerson said he and Turkish leaders were exploring “a number of options and alternatives” for retaking the IS militants’ last Syrian stronghold of Raqqa.
The U.S. top diplomat also met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Binali Yildirim during his one-day visit to the Turkish capital, which comes amid deteriorating relations with a NATO ally crucial to the fight against IS militants.
The two countries have been at odds over U.S. backing for Kurdish fighters in Syria whom Turkey considers terrorists. Cavusoglu told the press conference that U.S. backing for the Kurdish combatants has saddened Ankara and affected the countries’ bilateral relationship.
Responding to a question about U.S. support for the Kurdish YPG militia, Tillerson said there was “no space” between Turkey and the United States about the need to defeat the IS group. He also said the two countries shared a goal of reducing Iran’s potential to disrupt the region.
On Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, Tillerson said his “longer term status” will be decided by the Syrian people.
Cavusoglu raised the issue of Ankara’s request for the extradition of U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is wanted in Turkey for allegedly masterminding a failed coup attempt last year. Gulen denies the charges. The Turkish foreign minister said Turkey expects the United States to take administrative steps such as Gulen’s temporary detention.
Cavusoglu also described as “political” the arrest in New York this week of a senior executive of Turkish state-owned bank Halkbank. Mehmet Hakan Atilla is accused of helping to process millions of dollars of illegal transactions through U.S. banks for Iran. He is suspected of working with Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab, who faces charges of conspiring to violate U.S. sanctions against Iran, defraud American banks, and launder money. Cavusoglu said the U.S. attorney who launched the case against Zarrab had close ties with Gulen supporters.
Erdogan’s sweeping clampdown following the coup attempt has alarmed Western governments and complicated ties with Washington. Tillerson’s visit comes ahead of an April 16 referendum on proposals that would hand the Turkish president more power.
Tillerson “will be mindful of” political sensitivities ahead of the referendum, the Reuters news agency quoted a State Department official as saying in a conference call with reporters before the trip. But U.S. officials said that Tillerson would not meet with members of Turkish opposition groups.