Visiting U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has met with senior Turkish officials amid rising tensions between the two NATO allies. The countries remain at loggerheads in part over Washington’s support of a Kurdish militia in Syria, which Ankara accuses of being a terrorist organization.
While Tillerson was meeting his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, a crowd outside the venue chanted, "Murdering Americans," in a stark illustration of how low bilateral relations have sunk.
Turkey accuses the U.S. of arming the YPG Syrian Kurdish militia, which Ankara links to the banned PKK, a Kurdish organization that has been waging a decades-long deadly insurgency inside Turkey.
For Washington, the YPG is a key ally in the war against the Islamic State and affiliated groups. At a press conference with Cavusoglu, Tillerson urged Turkish forces to ease up on their ongoing offensive against the YPG in Syria's Afrin enclave, which has been under the control of Syrian Kurds.
"As to Afrin, we call upon Turkey to show restraint in its operation and to minimize casualties to civilians and to actions that would escalate tensions in that area," Tillerson said.
Both sides, however, announced a cooperation mechanism to address ongoing differences. Tillerson said particular attention will be focused on the Syrian town of Manbij, where U.S. forces are deployed with the Syrian Kurdish militia.
Manbij is the next target of Turkish forces in its Syria offensive. Cavusoglu accused Washington of failing to honor commitments that the YPG would withdraw after the capture of Manbij from Islamic State.
Tillerson acknowledged that the U.S. had not fully carried out agreements made with Ankara and that much work needed to be done to rebuild relations.
"We are not going to act alone any longer, the U.S. doing one thing and Turkey doing another. We are going to act together from this point forward. We are going to lock arms; we are going to work through the issues that are causing difficulties for us," Tillerson said.
The U.S. top diplomat also raised human rights concerns and the ongoing detention of U.S. citizens and local diplomatic employees in Turkey under emergency powers introduced after a 2016 coup attempt. No breakthrough was expected from Tillerson’s Ankara visit, but both sides appear to remain willing to try to avoid a collapse in relations or military confrontation.