Turkey-US agree to work on easing disputes over Syrian crises

Turkey-US agree to work on easing disputes over Syrian crises

Sevil Erkuş - ANKARA
Turkey-US agree to work on easing disputes over Syrian crises

Turkey and the United States have reached an “understanding to normalize ties” Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on Feb. 16, announcing the decision to “establish mechanisms” to solve the series of ongoing disagreements between the two NATO allies.

The first meeting of this mechanism will be held no later than mid-March, Çavuşoğlu told reporters at a joint press conference alongside U.S. Secretary State Rex Tillerson.

In his first meeting in the Turkish capital late on Feb. 15, Tillerson met President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for discussions amid deep problems in the strategic relationship between Ankara and Washington. Turkish presidential sources said Erdoğan “clearly” told Tillerson about Ankara’s expectations on Syria and Iraq, as well as the fight against terror, in a meeting that went on for over three hours in Ankara.

Full text of joint Turkey-US statement issued after Tillerson-Çavuşoğlu meeting
Full text of joint Turkey-US statement issued after Tillerson-Çavuşoğlu meeting

The Syrian town of Manbij remains a point of contention between the two sides, with Ankara repeatedly demanding the retreat of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) there and threatening to attack it after the conclusion of the current Afrin operation.

“After the YPG withdraws from Manbij, we can take steps with the U.S. based on confidence. First the YPG should leave here,” Çavuşoğlu said at the press conference.

Turkey has proposed to the U.S. that YPG fighters withdraw to east of the Euphrates in Syria and that Turkish and U.S. troops be stationed together in the country’s Manbij area, a Turkish official told Reuters.

Conceding that the two allies were “at a point of crisis,” Tillerson vowed that the two sides would continue to work together.

“We are not going to act alone any longer. It will not be the U.S. doing one thing and Turkey doing another. We will work together... we have good mechanisms on how we can achieve this and there is a lot of work to be done,” he added.

Tillerson said Washington and Ankara “share the same objectives” in Turkey’s southern neighbor, referring to the defeat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), forming secure and stable zones, and achieving an independent and unified Syria.

In a highly unusual break from protocol, the only other official present at Tillerson’s meeting with Erdoğan at the presidential palace was Çavuşoğlu who also acted as translator, U.S. sources told AFP.

During the meeting, Tillerson reportedly warned that Turkey’s operation against the YPG in the Afrin region of Syria risks distracting from the fight against ISIL. The United States has a military presence in Manbij, raising fears of a confrontation between the two NATO allies.

The town was once held by ISIL before it was pushed out by YPG militants and Tillerson said it was vital it did not fall again into jihadist hands.

The proposed mechanism will also look at other problematic areas, such as Turkey’s demand for extradition of Fethullah Gülen, the U.S.-based cleric who the Turkish government accuses of masterminding the July 2016 coup attempt.

Tillerson pledged that they will assess all the evidence delivered by the Turkish government about the Fetullahist Terrorist Organization (FETÖ) and “continue independent investigations,” adding that they were ready to receive it if Ankara has any further evidence of the group being engaged in illegal work in the U.S.

Turkey’s purchase of S-400 anti-missile defense systems from Russia, which could prompt U.S. sanctions due to a recent Congress decision, is another issue to be tackled at the working groups.

During the meeting Tillerson also reportedly urged the release of Turkish citizens who have been caught up in post-coup attempt detentions. Last week, NASA scientist Serkan Gölge, a dual national, was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in jail over links to Gülen’s movement.

American pastor Andrew Brunson, who ran a church in the western province of İzmir, has been held on similar charges since October 2016, and Tillerson urged Turkey to release him during the press conference with Çavuşoğlu.