Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson faces what could be the most delicate and complicated diplomatic trip of his tenure so far when he meets Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara Thursday for bilateral talks on Syria, Iraq, the Kurds and Mr. Erdogan’s obsession with U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen.
While U.S. officials have expressed optimism ahead of the trip, Mr. Tillerson’s mission won’t get any easier Friday, when he heads from Turkey to his first major summit with NATO foreign ministers in Brussels, where he’ll attempt to ease tensions over President Trump’s pointed questioning of the alliance.
The Turkey and NATO visits come a week after Mr. Tillerson hosted diplomats from 68 nations in Washington for a meeting of the global coalition against the Islamic State — an event that sought to pump new energy into the multilateral fight against the terror group.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu attended the gathering, which State Department officials say laid the groundwork for what Mr. Tillerson hopes will be a deeper discussion in Ankara over the next steps in the campaign to defeat Islamic State.
Turkey is a NATO ally, and Mr. Tillerson will “express his appreciation” for its recent military operations in Syria that helped clear Islamic State fighters from the key city of al-Bab, blocking the group’s access to a key stretch of the Syria-Turkey border, according to one senior State Department official, who spoke on background with reporters this week.
There are, however, serious questions about the future of U.S.-Turkey cohesion in the fight against Islamic State — particularly with regard to Washington’s military aid to Kurdish fighters in the looming battle for the group’s de facto headquarters in the Syrian city of Raqqa.
Anger has long simmered in Ankara over U.S. support for such militias as the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) — which Turkey lists as terrorist organizations engaged in a decades-old separatist insurgency against the Turkish state.
Mr. Cavusoglu put on a positive face at last week’s counter-Islamic State summit in Washington. But he bristled over the Kurdish issue during a speech hosted by the Turkish Heritage Organization on the sidelines of the gathering. “In our fight against [Islamic State], we do not rely on other terrorist organizations,” the Turkish foreign minister said. “Why? Because there is not a good terrorist.”
Analysts say the Trump administration might seek Turkish concessions on the Kurdish issue by offering to expedite the extradition of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom the Erdogan government accuses of orchestrating a failed coup against the government in Ankara last July.
Mr. Erdogan has for months called on U.S. officials to hand over the 75-year-old Muslim cleric, who’s been living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since the late 1990s.
The Trump administration has so far followed a policy set out by President Obama of resisting Mr. Erdogan’s request and saying Turkey will have to show clearer evidence to U.S. courts of Mr. Gulen’s involvement in the coup.
But there are behind-the-scenes murmurings that some in the administration may be open to a different approach. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that former Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn — while serving as an adviser to the Trump campaign — had met with top Turkish government ministers and discussed removing Mr. Gulen from the U.S. and taking him to Turkey.
Mr. Flynn, who served briefly as President Trump’s national security adviser before being dismissed over unrelated matters last month, has since challenged the Journal report. A Flynn spokesman told The Hill newspaper that no such discussion about Gulen ever occurred during the meeting with Turkish officials.
But Mr. Flynn did recently file Justice Department paperwork disclosing more than $500,000 he received last year from a Dutch consulting company for work that may have benefited the Turkish government.
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