America’s strained relationship with a key NATO ally is “on the mend,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Monday.
“I think 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,” Tillerson told State Department employees at the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul.
Turkey is a member of NATO, but that hasn’t prevented sharp national security and political disagreements in recent years.
To defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the United States partnered with an ethnic minority the Turks believe have strong ties to separatist terrorist group in their country. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also has governed in an authoritarian manner, especially following a failed coup attempt, resulting in clashes with western powers.
“I’ve had now about six hours of meetings over three different occasions with President Erdogan, and I think each meeting things are getting a little better, in terms of the tone between us,” Tillerson said. “I think we are beginning to rebuild some of that trust that we lost in one another. They lost our trust, to a certain extent; we lost theirs.”
Erdogan blamed the coup attempt on U.S.-based cleric Fetullah Gulen, adding “the West is supporting terrorism and taking sides with coups,” and used the threat to justify the arrest of tens of thousands of domestic dissidents.
With that crackdown underway, the United States and other western nations have not extradited Gulen or other expatriate Erdogan opponents. The Obama administration sought to salve Erdogan’s anger with a near-apology for the U.S. response to the coup. Tillerson likewise went out of his way to condemn the rebellion earlier on his trip.
“We’re all here in Istanbul at a momentous time,” he said Sunday. “Nearly a year ago, the Turkish people – brave men and women – stood up against coup plotters and defended their democracy. I take this moment to recognize their courage and honor the victims of the events of July 15, 2016. It was on that day that the Turkish people exercised their rights under the Turkish constitution, defended their place in a prosperous Turkey, and we remember those who were injured or died in that event.”
Tillerson offered that tribute as tens of thousands of protestors against Erdogan completed a march to Istanbul, despite Erdogan’s threats that they are supporting terrorism. That accusation has become an umbrella charge since the coup that Erdogan has used to justify the arrest of his political opponents and critics.
“If only there was no need for this march and there was democracy, media freedoms, if civic society groups could freely express their opinions,” Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who led the march, told the Associated Press.
Erdogan’s crackdown on political opponents has extended even to the United States, where he presided over an attack by his security detail on protesters outside the Turkish embassy in Washington D.C.
The State Department condemned that attack, but an impenitent Turkey instead accused the U.S. officials of “aggressive and unprofessional actions.” Republican and Democratic lawmakers want the Trump administration to punish Erdogan over the incident, but there have been only limited rebukes.
Tillerson’s praise for the defeat of the coup as a victory for democracy, despite the ongoing crackdown, seems emblematic of his beliefs about the occasional tension between U.S. national security interests and human rights.
“If we [demand] too heavily that others must adopt this value that we’ve come to over a long history of our own, it really creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests or our economic interests,” Tillerson told State Department employees in May.
“It doesn’t mean that we leave those values on the sidelines. It doesn’t mean that we don’t advocate for and aspire to freedom and human dignity and the freedom of the people the world over. We do. We will always have that on our shoulder, everywhere we go.”