A devilishly difficult job for Rex Tillerson in Turkey

The State Department says Rex Tillerson is ready for "difficult conversations" when he arrives in Ankara this Friday....

Posted: Feb. 15, 2018 2:46 PM
Updated: Feb. 15, 2018 2:46 PM

The State Department says Rex Tillerson is ready for "difficult conversations" when he arrives in Ankara this Friday. He'd better be.

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Tensions are high -- so high, in fact, that Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu issued an ultimatum this week: either the United States finally does something to address Turkish concerns about their border security or the bilateral relationship breaks apart.

There is, to be sure, a touch of melodrama in Cavusoglu's threat. But the Turks have long complained about American support to Kurdish YPG fighters in Syria, whom Turkey views as terrorists aligned with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). This, Turkey believes, makes the United States complicit in attacks by these groups upon Turkish soil.

But the volume on bilateral irritants has been steadily raised over the last few years. Mr. Erdogan has accused the United States of supporting the coup attempt of 2016; he has jailed thousands of government workers, educators, military officers and journalists, as well as some American citizens and embassy staff on weak -- or even no -- charges; he has put at risk through word and deed the small American force on the ground in Syria.

Even now he presses forward -- with Russian approval -- an operation in Afrin that he claims is designed to rid the area of PKK, but is little more than an effort to diminish the US presence in Syria. And he has threatened to move on the Syrian town of Manbij, which is controlled right now by YPG-led forces supported by American troops.

Add to this mix the cozying up of Turkey to NATO's biggest adversary: Russia.

Turkey reportedly agreed to purchase Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile batteries and has been working closely with Russia on peace plans for Syria not supported by the UN. Russian president Vladimir Putin actually hosted representatives from Turkey and Iran in Sochi last month for a "peace congress" that was boycotted by main opposition groups and achieved no meaningful results.

Tillerson is going to be walking into a tough room.

He must prove willing to be tough in return. The unfortunate fact is, however, that he's going in there at a disadvantage. Almost since the start of his tenure, the White House has consistently undermined his policy positions. So it's unclear that Turkish officials will view Tillerson as empowered to make decisions or as an actual mouthpiece for the President.

So Tillerson has his work cut out for him. But it's work perfectly suited to a US Secretary of State, and we should be glad he is taking it on.

He must be firm, willing to call Turkey out for the dangerous and unhelpful actions it continues to pursue. He must reiterate -- as American forces proved when attacked recently by pro-Syrian forces -- that a move on Manbij will not be tolerated. And he must continue to urge restraint and a refocus of Turkish military actions against ISIS.

But he must also look for ways to work through the current tensions and develop a framework for better cooperation and, more importantly, a better outcome in Syria. In other words, Secretary Tillerson should take the long view.

We suggest this is the perfect opportunity to:

1) Start to repair US credibility as a leader on resolving the conflict in Syria. The civil war in Syria has been raging now for seven years. Hundreds of thousands of people have died. Previously, the United States led efforts to try to resolve the ongoing violence and to deal with the extremists using Syria as a base camp for operations around the world.

Turkey and the United States have had strategic disagreements on Syria related to the Kurds, but at this point Russia is exploiting these fissures to insert itself into a mediator role. Russia does not share our interests in Syria, nor does it represent the interests of the Syrian people.

Tillerson needs convince his Turkish counterparts that US leadership is the best means of achieving an end to violence and resolving the crisis in a way that's in the interests of all parties. To do that, of course, he will need the backing of President Trump, who has thus far not shown great interest in achieving a political settlement of the civil war.

To his credit, Tillerson told reporters he would discuss the peace process with his Turkish counterparts. But he should do more than just make clear we share with Turkey the goal of a united, stable and peaceful Syria that poses no threat to anyone. He should prove it by laying out a diplomatic strategy in keeping with the UN-led Geneva process.

2) Expose Russia's malfeasance and opportunism for what it is. The Russians are in Syria primarily for one reason: to preserve their foothold in the Middle East. They don't love Syrian President Bashar al-Assad any more than the Turks do, but they've placed their bets on him as the best chance to keep their presence and influence alive there.

The deepening bonds between Russia and Turkey are neither natural nor inevitable. As recently as 2015, Turkey was one of the most vocal critics of Russian efforts to prop up Assad. Tensions reached a boiling point that year when Turkish forces shot down a Russian warplane.

Tillerson would do well to remind Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the history here and of the chaos, instability and increased threat he will face with a Russian-backed Assad-led government persisting in Damascus. This is a good time to demonstrate the value of our partnership in and out of the Alliance.

3) Offer to mediate a return to Turkish-Kurdish negotiations. The two-and-a-half year ceasefire between Turkey and the PKK collapsed in July 2015, and there's been no serious effort since to revive it. We cannot expect that to change any time soon, but given increased US influence with the YPG, it may be possible to find a way to renew some level of discussion.

American mediation would represent the leverage the United States possesses and convey our sincerity to more fully address the threat Turkey faces from terrorism. That's not a bad place to start.

In the end, however, it really comes down to what sort of "difficult conversation" Mr. Tillerson is willing to have. The meetings in Ankara could very easily devolve into charge and counter-charge, complaint and counter-complaint. But if he is empowered to take a longer view, the US Secretary of State could begin to lay the groundwork for a better bilateral relationship.

For the sake of Syria and the region, he'd better be.

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