Tillerson in Turkey for talks amid Syria strains

Raziye AKKOC
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US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is the most senior US diplomat to visit Turkey since President Trump took office in January

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met Turkish leaders Thursday for talks clouded by differences over Syria, a day after Ankara announced the end of its military offensive there.

Tillerson, the most senior US official to visit Turkey since President Donald Trump took office in January, is seeking to turn around recently rocky relations between the NATO allies.

He met with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for over two hours, after talks with Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.

The trip comes after Turkey announced "Euphrates Shield", its operation in northern Syria, had ended but did not say if troops had been withdrawn from the war-torn country.

Ties between Ankara and Washington were strained during Barack Obama's administration, particularly over US cooperation with Syrian Kurdish militia fighting against the Islamic State group.

Ankara views the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) as a "terror group" linked to Kurdish separatists waging an insurgency inside Turkey since 1984, but Washington regards them as the best force fighting IS.

Turkey has suggested it wants to join any operation to capture the IS bastion of Raqa but without involvement of Kurdish militia.

Speaking to NTV television on the eve of Tillerson's visit, Yildirim said the US had not yet informed Turkey if Ankara would take part in a planned Raqa campaign.

"The developments give an impression that the (Trump administration) is following the path of the past administration," he said, referring to the same tensions of the Obama years over the Syrian Kurdish militia role.

"This issue will be told to the US Secretary of State without any buts and the United States will be asked to clarify its position."

Tillerson and Yildirim "discussed working to enhance our critical security and economic ties in the region," a State Department official said after the meeting.

In a statement, Yildirim's office said the ministers discussed Syria, now in the seventh year of a war, and spoke about efforts to clear IS from Syria and Iraq.

Presidential sources said Erdogan told Tillerson that it was important for the fight against terror to be conducted with "right and legitimate actors".

Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy and visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, suggested Turkey declared its Syria operation was over before Tillerson's visit to stave off claims the decision was made under US pressure.

"Turkish troops are not leaving. But it also means that the Turkish military will not, in all likelihood, take part in further operations other than defending the current territory of Euphrates Shield," he told AFP, of the Turkish announcement.

"It also means that Turkey will not take part in the Raqa operation" which he said was slated to take place with Kurdish militia.

- Arrest of bank executive -

There were also tensions with Obama over Ankara's calls for the extradition of US-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen, a matter that remains unresolved.

The premier's office also said Yildirim and Tillerson discussed the next steps that should be taken for Gulen's return to Turkey.

Turkey accuses the Muslim cleric living in self-exile of ordering last year's failed coup against Erdogan. Gulen denies the charges but Ankara has repeatedly called for his extradition from the United States.

Turkish officials hope relations will improve under Trump but there has not been any public indication of a change in policy so far.

The US detention of a senior Turkish state bank executive also added to tensions Wednesday.

Halkbank's Mehmet Hakan Atilla is accused of helping to process millions of dollars of illegal transactions through US banks for Iran's government and other Iranian institutions.

Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said Atilla's arrest in the US was "completely a political operation," in an interview with A Haber television.