ANKARA, Turkey — The United States and Turkey struggled Thursday to resolve a deep dispute over the Kurdish role in the fight against the Islamic State group, but appeared no closer to a resolution as U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wrapped up his first trip to Turkey.
As the U.S. prepares an operation to retake the de facto ISIS capital of Raqqa, Syria, the U.S. and Turkey are deadlocked over who should do the fighting. Turkey wants the U.S. to partner with its military and with Turkish-backed forces in Syria, but the U.S. has been backing Syrian Kurdish fighters who have proven the most effective ground force against ISIS.
"Let me be very frank: These are not easy decisions," Tillerson said in Ankara. "They are difficult decisions that have to be made."
Turkey considers the Kurdish force, known as the YPG, to be a terrorist group that threatens Turkey's security.
The U.S. hasn't formally announced a decision on who will be part of the Raqqa operation. But all signs point to the U.S. continuing to bet on the Kurds. In recent days the U.S. military airlifted hundreds of Syrian Kurdish forces along with U.S. military advisers and artillery behind enemy lines as preparations for the Raqqa offensive ramp up.
Tillerson said he and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu had explored "a number of options and alternatives" for the operation, but signaled they'd reached no agreement. He said both countries would keep working to resolve the issue while insisting there was "no space" between the allies as far as their joint resolve to defeat ISIS.
But Cavusoglu, standing alongside Tillerson, warned that past U.S. support for the Syrian Kurdish forces had already damaged America's relations with Turkey. He accused the U.S. of using one terrorist organization to fight another.
"It has negatively affected the Turkish people's sentiments toward the United States," Cavusoglu said in Turkish.
Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, right, shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, left, prior to their meeting in Ankara, Turkey, Thursday, March 30, 2017.
Photo Credit: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP Photo
Cavusoglu claimed that the Trump administration and the U.S. military have accepted that the YPG, the dominant force in the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, is intrinsically linked to the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers' Party. The PKK has led a three-decade long insurgency in southeast Turkey and is considered a terrorist group by the U.S. But the U.S. has not extended that designation to the Kurds in Syria, and American military officials have said there's no evidence the YPG have posed a threat to Turkey in recent years.
Though the U.S. and Turkey share a goal of defeating ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the U.S. has been concerned that Turkey's Operation Euphrates Shield is more focused on preventing Syrian Kurds from forming an autonomous region in northern Syria, along Turkey's border, that could embolden Turkey's own Kurdish minority. On Wednesday, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim announced that the operation had ended after its troops and allied rebels secured territory along the border between Turkey and Syria.
"Life is back to normal. Everything is under control," Yildirim said on Turkey's NTV news channel. "Euphrates Shield has ended. If there is a need, a new operation will have a new name."
Addressing reporters after meeting with Cavusoglu, Tillerson said it was up to Syria's people to determine any future role for Syrian President Bashar Assad amid the country's long-running civil war. The U.S. has long insisted Assad lacks the legitimacy to lead Syria, but in recent days has prioritized the fight against IS, which is also fighting Assad's forces.
Hanging over Tillerson's trip is Turkey's continued insistence that the U.S. extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric living in Pennsylvania whom Turkey blames for instigating last year's failed coup. Gulen denies involvement, and the U.S. has said Turkey has failed to provide sufficient proof of his guilt.
But Cavusoglu said Turkey had provided plenty of evidence and that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions had committed to "evaluate the documents meticulously." He said at a minimum, Turkey wants the U.S. to issue a temporary arrest warrant for Gulen while the extradition process plays out.
"We are expecting concrete steps," Cavusoglu said, adding that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had conveyed that message directly to President Donald Trump. "We need to take mutual steps to put relations with the United States back on track."
Lederman reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Zeynep Bilginsoy in Istanbul contributed to this report.