In a 27 March teleconference, senior State Department officials provided an overview of Secretary Rex Tillerson’s 30 March trip to Ankara. In their responses to journalists’ questions, they revealed what Turks can expect and not expect to result from this trip.
The focus of this trip is the continuing fight against ISIS and providing security and safety to the liberated population, especially those on the borders of Turkey and Jordan. Several times they referred to areas of stability that would need to be established both in areas where ceasefires from the Astana process have taken hold and in areas freed from ISIS control. Though avoiding the term “safe zones”, the speakers acknowledged that areas of stability along the border with Turkey, and Jordan in southern Syria, were of paramount importance for such areas would allow the delivery of humanitarian assistance vital to creating stability and in persuading many refugees to return to Syria as it would be safe to do so. It is also clear from the responses that the senior State Department officials recognize the importance of close coordination with Turkey on the establishment of these areas of stability. This leads to the issue of the YPG.
From the responses, we can expect Secretary Tillerson to continue the U.S. support for the Syrian Defense Force (SDF) regardless of the inclusion of Kurdish elements in its military structure, elements the Turkish side considers PKK terrorists or at least PKK affiliates. In one response, the State Department official stated that the SDF was 75% Arab, glossing over its heavily Kurdish command structure. This official repeatedly underlining the U.S. position that the SDF represented local forces that are critical to stability after ISIS is defeated. Expect Tillerson to listen closely to Turkish arguments that the YPG elements in the SDF are terrorists, but don’t expect any distancing of the U.S. from the SDF Kurdish elements that have been highly effective against ISIS.
In response to questions about the referendum on presidential authority and the current human rights situation in Turkey, the State Department officials made it clear that Tillerson will not be speaking about those issues, certainly not publicly. Even in private, one can expect the standard language on the need to respect human rights, freedom of the press, etc., but it will not be the focus of his discussions. This reflects the Trump administration’s reluctance to comment on other countries’ domestic human rights issues, especially in public. No meetings with members of the opposition are scheduled, one official claiming that the schedule allowed time to meet with government officials and U.S. Embassy staff. Of course the schedule could have been structured to include meetings with the opposition, but the current U.S. administration favors diplomatic relations conducting confidentially between state actors, not publicly with all of a country’s political stakeholders. (One exception will be the situation of dual U.S.-Turkish citizens, for whom Tillerson is likely to privately express concern.) The officials also made it clear that the tension between Turkey and Germany or other countries is not something for the U.S. to resolve but for the parties involved to sort out – don’t expect the U.S. to involve itself in Turkish domestic affairs or Turkey’s international relations with other states.
Finally, don’t expect any change in the ongoing extradition process for Fethullah Gulen. The Wall Street Journal reported on 25 March that retired Army Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, while serving as an adviser to the Trump campaign, met with top Turkish government ministers and discussed removing Gulen from the U.S. and taking him to Turkey. One must ask why this information, known for months by former Central Intelligence Agency Director James Woolsey who attended the meeting, was not revealed until now. It is possible, but here I am speculating, that he wanted to remind Tillerson and the Trump administration that any extra-judicial moves against Gulen must not take place and that the message to Turkey must remain that the extradition request will be reviewed by the U.S. Departments of Justice and of State in full conformity with the law. If pushed by Turkey on Gulen, expect Tillerson to respond that the matter is with DOJ. It is worth noting that as a Legal Permanent Resident (LPR) of the U.S., Gulen enjoys almost the same level of civil and legal rights as a U.S. citizen (he is considered a U.S. person under the law). Recent court action regarding the treatment of LPRs caught up in the Trump administration Travel Bans shows the depth and breadth of legal protection afforded to LPRs. Don’t expect Gulen’s extradition to take place until the Turkish side produces evidence of his involvement in the July 2016 coup attempt, evidence that will bear the scrutiny of U.S. courts.
In sum, Tillerson will focus on cooperation with Turkey in the fight against ISIS, stabilization of areas freed from ISIS or covered by the Astana process ceasefires, and reminding Turkey that the U.S. is a reliable ally, but one that like Turkey puts its national interests first. Other issues such as Cyprus, Iran, Israel will be touched on, but they will not be the focus of this short visit. At the same time, Tillerson will not allow himself to be pulled into commenting onTurkey’s domestic conflicts or its relations with other states as long as those conflicts and relations not affect U.S. interests.