Tillerson Meets Turkey’s Erdogan in Bid to Defuse an Emerging Crisis

Tillerson Meets Turkey’s Erdogan in Bid to Defuse an Emerging Crisis

The U.S. and Turkey are attempting to bridge differences over their operations in northern Syria, holding a battery of meetings this week to defuse tensions between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday evening in Ankara, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis met twice this week with his Turkish counterpart, in Rome and Brussels.

Relations between Ankara and Washington are growing increasingly strained over Turkey’s offensive against the Kurdish-held enclave of Afrin in northern Syria.

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Mr. Mattis and his counterpart exchanged detailed plans on Thursday in Brussels about what to do in northern Syria, said an official familiar with the meeting. The two sides, the official said, were beginning to “overcome some differences.”

Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the top NATO commander who joined Mr. Mattis in the meeting with the Turks, said the discussions weren’t without tensions, “but they have been very productive.”

He said the two sides understood each other better after candidly laying out their needs and concerns.

“You can start to design ways that we can work together to solve some of these problems,” Gen. Scapparotti said.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis delivered a speech during a press conference in Brussels on Thursday. Photo: john thys/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images


On Thursday, Mr. Mattis acknowledged the divisions between the two sides in northern Syria, but stressed there was common ground.

“It is probably the most complex security situation, fighting situation I have seen in over four decades of dealing with fights,” Mr. Mattis said. “We are finding common ground. And there are areas of uncommon ground, where sometimes war just gives you bad alternatives to choose from.”

Mr. Tillerson said in Beirut on Thursday, ahead of his stop in Ankara, that the U.S. and Turkey share the same “endpoint objectives.”

“We have some differences about tactically how to achieve the objectives. But our objectives are to defeat ISIS, to defeat terrorism, to reduce violence and protect people and support a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Syria that would bring great benefits not only for Syria but also for Lebanon and other neighboring countries,” he said.

The U.S. has urged Turkey to focus on the fight against Islamic State, an implicit criticism of Ankara’s strategy in Syria as tensions run high between the NATO allies.

Turkey, which is fighting a homegrown Kurdish separatist movement, is concerned about the spillover of a Syrian Kurdish buildup of territory along its border. But the U.S. believes the Turkish military offensive is drawing U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters away from the fight against the remnants of Islamic State.

In a statement on Thursday, the Pentagon said Mr. Mattis had acknowledged to Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli “the legitimate threats” to Turkey. But he warned that a resurgent Islamic State could pose a threat to all NATO allies.

‘It is probably the most complex security situation, fighting situation I have seen in over four decades of dealing with fights.’

—U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis

Turkish officials said their key demand is to move the main Syrian Kurdish militia, known as YPG east of the Euphrates River and that it was up to U.S. negotiators to lay out a detailed plan of how to do that.

Mr. Tillerson said Tuesday in Kuwait at a meeting on confronting Islamic State that Turkey’s offensive in Afrin has detracted from the fight against Islamic State in Eastern Syria, as forces have diverted themselves toward Afrin.

Turkish officials repeatedly have said they share the U.S. view that fighting Islamic State, which has carried out repeated terror attacks in Turkey, is critical. But the Turkish government believes the U.S. strategy in the region, in which it helps Ankara combat the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as the PKK, in Iraq, but provides weapons to what it considers the group’s Syrian arm, is contradictory.

Mr. Canikli said Ankara’s operation in Syria was imperative to securing Turkey’s borders.

“Turkey will stick it out until the very end,” he said Wednesday in Rome, according to the Turkish state-run Anadolu news agency.

—Emre Peker contributed to this article.

Write to Julian E. Barnes at julian.barnes@wsj.com and Felicia Schwartz at Felicia.Schwartz@wsj.com

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