The U.S. and Turkey are beginning to rebuild trust and could come to an agreement about northern Syria, where the U.S. backs a Kurdish militia that Turkey considers a terrorist organization, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told staff at the U.S. consulate-general in Istanbul.
“I think we’re beginning to rebuild some of that trust that we lost in one another: they lost our trust to a certain extent, we lost theirs,” Tillerson said on Monday while in Istanbul to attend an oil conference. “We’re making some progress down in Syria, we’re hopeful that we can replicate that with Turkey on some areas in the north part of Syria.”
Tillerson’s remarks come after a meeting in Hamburg between President Donald Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin delivered a cease-fire in southwest Syria. Putin, the most significant backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, called the deal a “breakthrough” on July 9. In a tweet the following day, Trump said the cease-fire seemed to be holding and “many lives can be saved.”
The U.S.-Turkey relationship has been strained by the U.S. partnership with the Syrian Democratic Forces, an umbrella opposition group whose main fighting force is the Kurdish YPG. The U.S. chose to partner with and arm the YPG for an assault on the Islamic State’s stronghold of Raqqa despite Turkish protests and offers that it could provide an alternative military option. The YPG is affiliated with the PKK, a Kurdish group that has been fighting for autonomy inside Turkey since 1984, and which both Turkey and the U.S. consider a terrorist organization.
Tillerson said he hoped for an improvement in ties between the two allies after some six hours of meetings with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on three different occasions.
“Our relationship here in Turkey, which has been under some stress for some time, I hope we are beginning to put it on the mend,” he told the consular staff. “This is an extraordinarily important relationship to the United States for many, many reasons that you would well understand, from a security standpoint to the future economic opportunities as well, and the important geography just by luck of mother nature that the citizens of Turkey occupy at this crossroads of the world.”
Turkey, the only Muslim-majority member of NATO, borders Iran, Iraq and Syria to its east and Greece to the west, making it the main land buffer between the Middle East and Europe. The nation hosts some 3 million refugees from the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts and has suffered dozens of terrorist attacks since the Syrian war began, prompting the U.S. to draw down consular staff in the country and order families home.
“I know we’re not back to full normalization yet but we’re working on it,” Tillerson told them, thanking them for operating in what he called a “challenging” post. “I want to thank our Turkish nationals who I know in particular are operating under some very difficult conditions as this relationship has been strained.”