ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has made his first official visit to Turkey. He met with the Turkish president and others while tensions between the allies are growing. Turkey's a key partner in the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, yet the two sides disagree about how to manage that war, specifically the role that Kurdish fighters should play.
The U.S. relies on Kurdish fighters in Syria, and that makes Turkey very uncomfortable. Kurdish militias are also fighting the Turkish government inside Turkey. At a news conference, Tillerson did not have any breakthroughs to report.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
REX TILLERSON: What we discussed today were options that are available to us. They are difficult options. Let me be very frank. These are not easy decisions. They are difficult choices that have to be made. So this has been very good. The conversations today were very frank, very candid.
SHAPIRO: NPR's Peter Kenyon joins us now from Turkey. Hi, Peter.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.
SHAPIRO: It sounds like Secretary Tillerson is learning the diplomatic speak - frank and candid. Often that's a euphemism for disagreements, maybe even shouting matches. (Laughter) What do we know about how this conversation went?
KENYON: Well, there weren't any joint remarks with President Erdogan. In fact, the press that traveled from Washington was kept not just out of the room but out of the palace and out of the grounds. They were outside on the main gate waiting. So if there was any shouting, they probably wouldn't have heard it. When there were public remarks with the foreign minister, Tillerson suggested that Turkey didn't get what it wanted.
SHAPIRO: And explain what Turkey wanted.
KENYON: Well, the big issue at the moment is this question of U.S. support for Syrian Kurdish fighters in the battle against ISIS. The Pentagon likes these fighters. They see them as very effective ground troops. But Turkey sees them as allies of Kurdish militants here in Turkey, and there's a conflict going on here. So they call this a severe security threat. Tillerson heard them out. He said more talks are coming. Various options are on the table, he says, but that of course isn't what the Turks were hoping to hear.
SHAPIRO: OK, so Turkey didn't get what it wanted. On the other side, what did Washington want out of this meeting?
KENYON: Well, Tillerson was quite clear on one thing. They want to keep using the Turkish air bases to launch their airstrikes against ISIS. He said it makes a big difference. In the past 18 months, there's been a 25 percent jump in the number of strikes they've been able to carry out without adding any aircraft just 'cause they're so much closer. The U.S. wants to keep using those bases. Turkey's threatened to cut them off, but so far, it's let them keep going.
And then there's other questions about controlling the border, keeping foreign fighters out of Syria. And of course the giant elephant in the room is for Turkey to remain a loyal ally of NATO and not shift towards Russia.
SHAPIRO: As we mentioned, tensions between these two allies - the U.S. and Turkey - are growing. Was there any progress on some of the other tension points between Turkey and the U.S.?
KENYON: Not that we could tell - no resolution on Turkey's demand for the extradition of Fethullah Gulen. He's the U.S.-based cleric. Turkey says he was behind last summer's failed coup. Gulen denies it. Turkey says the U.S. should at least lock him up while it considers the extradition request. All Tillerson had to say was that Attorney General Jeff Sessions would be reviewing the evidence, and that's pretty much what the Obama administration used to say.
Now, one thing the government here will note as a positive and civil rights groups, I must say, will find very negative is there was no public mention of Turkey's crackdown on the media or political dissent. And so that's a change in tone Ankara hopes the Trump administration continues.
But probably the most pressing issue's got to be this question of fighting ISIS in Syria using these Kurdish troops. And that's because there's a big offensive gearing up now to clear ISIS out of its de facto capital, Raqqa. As things stand, it looks like the Kurds will be part of that operation, and that's going to leave Turkey unhappy. And a lot of people wonder just how that unhappiness will be displayed.
SHAPIRO: NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul - thanks, Peter.
KENYON: Thanks, Ari.
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