The US and Turkey have retreated from the verge of a potentially disastrous crisis on Friday, agreeing to normalize relations badly strained over Syria and other issues that had threatened the NATO allies’ longstanding ties, The Associated Press reported.
Details of the rapprochement were vague, however, as the two sides agreed in principle only to form working groups that will begin meeting within the month to examine points of contention and try to resolve them.
After talks in Ankara, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu announced the creation of new “mechanisms” to improve the relationship, starting with the question of American support for the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria.
Those talks followed a meeting of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Çavuşoğlu and Tillerson late Thursday at which a broad range of disagreements were covered. The Turkish foreign minister reportedly acted as interpreter during the meeting at which no US interpreters or policy aides were present, in a break from established protocol that some consider “foolhardy.”
In addition to Syria, issues included Ankara’s complaints against US-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, who Erdoğan accuses of orchestrating a failed coup in 2016, US concerns about the state of Turkey’s democracy and opposition to Turkey’s planned purchase of a Russian air defense system.
“We brought forward proposals on how we can address all of the critical issues that are standing between our countries,” Tillerson said during a joint news conference with Çavuşoğlu. He said joint working groups would take up specific issues including troop deployments to address Turkish border security concerns before the middle of March.
Turkey is angry over Washington’s support for the YPG — the top US ally in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – considering it the Syrian extension of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long battle against Turkish security forces in the country’s Southeast.
Ties had also been damaged by the trial and conviction in New York Federal court of Turkish banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla, accused of helping Iran evade sanctions.
Washington is angered by the detention of journalists and opposition figures, American citizens and Turkish employees of US diplomatic missions in Turkey on alleged terror charges.
“We find ourselves at a bit of a crisis point in the relationship,” Tillerson said. But he also stressed the longstanding nature of the relationship. “Ours is not an alliance of convenience,” he said. “It is a time-tested alliance built on mutual respect. We’re going to work together moving forward.”
“Our relations were at a critical turning point,” Çavuşoğlu said. “We were either going to correct this or it was going to take a turn for the worse.”
Tillerson’s visit came as anti-US rhetoric from Turkish officials, including Erdoğan and Çavuşoğlu, had increased in recent days, with the president earlier this week suggesting that the Americans might be deserving of an “Ottoman slap,” a reference to the Ottoman Empire’s one-time might.
Such rhetoric was absent on Friday, and US officials expressed hope that it would not resurface in the days after Tillerson’s visit, which followed a similar trip earlier in the week by National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.
Tillerson said the first working group would deal with the issue of the town of Manbij, held by the US-backed Syrian Kurdish militia and where the United States has a military presence.
A joint statement on the Turkey-US strategic partnership was released on Friday in which the two countries reaffirmed “their mutual and unequivocal commitment to each other’s security and defense.”