The United States and Turkey have reportedly agreed on Friday to try to rescue a strategic relationship that Washington acknowledged had reached a crisis point, with Turkey proposing a joint deployment in Syria if a US-backed Kurdish militia leaves a border area.
According to Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency (AA), Ankara and Washington have “reached an understanding” to normalize ties following a period of tensions, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on Friday. Speaking alongside his visiting US counterpart Rex Tillerson at a press conference in Ankara, Çavuşoğlu said that “We’ve reached an understanding to normalize our relations with the US.”
“Of course, there are steps which have been taken for this. Both sides have expectations of each other,” Çavuşoğlu said. “We clearly expressed to the US side our expectations with regard to the fight against FETÖ and the PKK terrorist organizations, and the US support for the YPG.”
“FETÖ” is a pejorative acronym that Turkey’s political Islamist government and Turkish autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have been using to defame the civic Gülen movement.
“We assume that our vital security concerns have been taken serious by the US,” Çavuşoğlu added. Saying that his meeting with Tillerson dealt with “result-oriented” steps, he stated that “We agreed to establish some mechanisms which will cover and evaluate all the issues.”
“We find ourselves at a bit of a crisis point in the relationship,” Tillerson told a news conference after meeting with Çavuşoğlu. He had met with Erdoğan for a more than three-hour discussion on Thursday night. “We’ve decided and President Erdoğan decided last night we needed to talk about how do we go forward. The relationship is too important.”
Tillerson met President Erdoğan during a two-day visit that followed weeks of escalating anti-American rhetoric from the Turkish government. While relations between Washington and its main Muslim ally in NATO have been strained by a number of issues, Turkey has been particularly infuriated by US support for the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which it sees as terrorists.
Turkey launched an air and ground assault last month in Syria’s northwest Afrin region to sweep the YPG away from its southern border. The United States has armed, trained and aided YPG fighters with air support and special forces, as the main ground force in its campaign against Islamic State.
The US has no troops on the ground in Afrin, where the Turkish offensive has so far taken place. But Turkey has proposed extending its campaign further east to the town of Manbij, where US troops are based, potentially leading to direct confrontation with US-backed units.
In a proposal that could signal an important breakthrough in efforts to overcome the allies’ stark differences over Syria, a Turkish official told Reuters that Turkey had proposed that Turkish and US forces could deploy jointly in Manbij. Such a joint deployment could take place if YPG fighters first withdrew to positions east of the Euphrates river, long a Turkish demand.
Çavuşoğlu said Turkey would be able to take joint steps with the US in Syria once the YPG left the vicinity of Manbij. “We should be sure that the YPG crossed to the eastern side of the Euphrates River, and we should see its execution together,” Çavuşoğlu said and added that “What is important is who will govern and provide security to these areas… We will coordinate to restore stability in Manbij and other cities. We will start with Manbij. After YPG leaves there, we can take steps with the US based on trust.”
Tillerson has also said that the issues around Manbij would receive priority in the talks. Tillerson said he recognized Turkey’s legitimate right to defend its borders, but called on Ankara to show restraint in the Afrin operation and avoid actions that would escalate tensions in the area. Tillerson has also said that “We stand shoulder to shoulder with Turkey against terrorist threats.” The US will work on promises given to Turkey on Manbij, northern Syria, he added.
He also said the United States had serious concerns about local employees at its missions in Turkey and called on Ankara to release a US pastor and other Americans detained in Turkey.
After the Turkish-led Operation Olive Branch to capture Afrin from PYD/YPG/PKK in northern Syria, Turkish leaders say it will proceed to do the same with Manbij, where both armed Kurdish militia and US forces are stationed, raising the specter of a confrontation.
Meanwhile, the Turkish General Staff said in a statement on Friday that a total of 1,551 PYD/PKK and allegedly ISIL militants have been “neutralized” since the beginning of Operation Olive Branch in Syria’s northwestern Afrin region. Turkish authorities often use the word “neutralized” in their statements to imply the militants in question either surrendered or were killed or captured.