Tillerson’s Turkey visit raises hopes of a reset in relations

Tillerson’s Turkey visit raises hopes of a reset in relations
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrives in Ankara.
By Akin Nazli in Belgrade February 16, 2018

Turkey and the US have agreed to normalise bilateral relations, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on February 16 at a joint press meeting with his US counterpart Rex Tillerson in Ankara.

Tillerson’s visit came as relations between Turkey and the US had become increasingly acrimonious. The two countries have clashed recently over the Turkish campaign against the US-armed YPG Kurdish militia in Syria, raising the spectre of possible military engagement between the two Nato members. 

While it’s too early to tell how much the meetings between Tillerson and Turkish officials will contribute to mending relations, the two countries have at least shown willingness to rebuild their damaged rapport. 

“The US recognises Turkey’s legitimate right to secure its borders, but called on Ankara to show restraint in its operation in Syria’s Afrin and avoid actions that would escalate tension,” Tillerson said at press conference after holding a meeting with Cavusoglu.

Tillerson also spoke of the two countries’ “shared objectives” in Syria, according to a tweet from the US State Department: “Our objectives for Syria are exactly the same: defeat #ISIS, stabilize the country, and support the political solution that will result in a whole, independent and democratic Syria with free and fair elections.”

Tillerson also held a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on February 15, but details from the meeting have not yet been made public.

Prior to Tillerson’s visit, Cavusoglu said on February 12 that Turkey and the US will either fix bilateral relations or they will break completely.

Turkey is targeting the YPG militia in its air and ground operation in Syria’s northwest Afrin region, which started two weeks ago. Turkey considers the YPG to be a terrorist group, but the Americans have utilised the YPG in battling Islamic State.

Erdogan has promised to clear the militia from Turkey’s southern border, which potentially puts Turkish troops at risk of a confrontation with US forces on the ground in Syria. The Turkish president regularly repeats his demand that US forces pull back from Manbij in Syria, which could be the next target of Turkey’s operation.

Tillerson said on February 15, before his Ankara visit, that the US had “never given heavy arms” to the YPG and there was therefore “nothing to take back”.

Ahead of the visit, US national security adviser Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster met with Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin in Istanbul during the weekend. The US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis and Turkish Defence Minister Nurettin Canikli met on February 14 in Brussels on the sidelines of a Nato meeting.