By MATTHEW LEE and SUZAN FRASER
ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — The United States and Turkey pulled back from the brink of a potentially disastrous crisis on Friday, agreeing to normalize badly strained relations over Syria and other issues that had threatened the NATO allies’ longstanding ties.
However, details of the rapprochement were vague as the two sides agreed in principle only to form working groups that will begin meeting within the month to examine points of contention and try to resolve them.
After talks in Ankara, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced the creation of new “mechanisms” to improve the relationship, starting with the question of American support for Kurdish rebels in northern Syria.
Those talks followed a lengthy meeting of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Cavusoglu and Tillerson late Thursday at which a broad range of disagreements were covered.
In addition to Syria, those included Ankara’s complaints against a U.S.-based Turkish cleric whom Erdogan accuses of fomenting a failed 2016 coup, U.S. concerns about the state of Turkey’s democracy and opposition to Turkey’s planned purchase of a Russian air defense system.
“We brought forward proposals on how we can address all of the critical issues that are standing between our countries,” Tillerson said during a joint news conference with Cavusoglu. He said that joint working groups would take up specific issues including troop deployments to address Turkish border security concerns before the middle of March.
Turkey is riled over Washington’s support to the YPG — the top U.S. ally in the fight against the Islamic State group. Turkey considers it a “terrorist” group linked to Kurdish rebels fighting inside Turkey.
Compounding the difficulties over Syria, ties had also been damaged by what Ankara perceives to be Washington’s reluctance to extradite a U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen and the trial in the United States against a banker accused of helping Iran evade sanctions.
For its part, Washington is angered by the detention of journalists and opposition figures, American citizens and Turkish employees of U.S. consulates in Turkey on alleged terror charges.
“We find ourselves at a bit of a crisis point in the relationship,” Tillerson said. But, he also stressed the long-standing nature of the relationship. “Ours is not an alliance of convenience,” he said. “It is a time-tested alliance built on mutual respect. We’re going to work together moving forward.”
“Our relations were at a critical turning point,” Cavusoglu said. “We were either going to correct this or it was going to take a turn for the worse.”
Tillerson’s visit came as anti-U.S. rhetoric from Turkish officials, including Erdogan and Cavusoglu, had spiked in recent days, with the president earlier this week suggesting that the Americans might be deserving of an “Ottoman slap,” a reference to the Ottoman Empire’s one-time might.
Such rhetoric was absent on Friday and U.S. officials expressed hope that it would not resurface in the days after Tillerson’s visit, which followed a similar trip earlier this month by national security adviser H.R. McMaster.
Tillerson said the first working group would deal with the issue of the town of Manbij, held by the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish militia and where the United States has a military presence.
Turkey has long pressed the United States to ensure that the YPG leave Manbij and has threatened to extend an offensive to drive Syrian Kurds from a border enclave to that region. U.S. officials said one idea to be considered is to place Turkish troops alongside American soldiers stationed in northern Syria in order to improve transparency.
Cavusoglu repeated that promises made by the previous U.S administration about the YPG moving to the east of the river Euphrates were broken.
The U.S. considers the Syrian Kurdish fighters the most effective fighting force in the battle to defeat IS in Syria, and this week offered a budget plan that would send them the bulk of $550 million in new assistance.
Turkey’s military campaign against Kurds in northern Syria has alarmed U.S. leaders who have watched as the fighting has sapped energy from the fight against remaining Islamic State strongholds.
As the talks got underway, dozens of Turkish demonstrators marched to the building where the meeting took place, waving Turkish flags, to protest U.S. support to the YPG. They were dispersed by riot police, witnesses said.
Another matter discussed was Turkey’s planned purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system that has drawn criticism from the U.S. and other NATO allies. In addition to concerns about the Turks buying a system that is not compatible with the alliance’s equipment, Turkey could face sanctions under U.S. law passed last year to punish Russia if it goes ahead with the deal.
Tillerson said the intent of the legislation “was not to harm our friends and allies” but stressed that the administration would enforce provisions that call for sanctions against countries and firms that do business with certain Russian military producers. He said U.S. and Turkish experts would meet to discuss what the ramifications of the purchase would be.
“We want to consult with Turkey and make sure they at least understand what may be at risk with this transaction,” Tillerson said. He noted that some countries are already reconsidering deals with Russia based on discussions with U.S. officials about the impact of the legislation.
Cavusoglu said Turkey understood the law, but that air defense is a critical national security concern and Ankara had been unable to find another supplier. “We have an emergency need for air defenses and the Russian Federation came up with an attractive proposal for us,” he said.