Tillerson to Meet Erdogan, Turkish Leaders in Ankara on March 30

Former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson appears before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on January 11, 2017

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has confirmed that U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will visit Turkey on March 30. Tillerson will meet with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan following a diplomatic dispute with the Netherlands that has triggered a wave of anti-Western vitriol from the Islamist Turkish head of state.

“The U.S. Secretary of State said he wanted to come on March 30 and I told him that this would suit us in Ankara,” Çavuşoğlu confirmed on Thursday. “If our prime minister is in Ankara, he will meet him.” The state-run Anadolu Agency confirmed that Tillerson is expected to meet Erdogan, citing the same Çavuşoğlu interview, where the foreign minister also took the opportunity to refer to conservative Dutch leader Geert Wilders as a “total fascist.”

The Turkish newspaper Hurriyet adds that the Tillerson interview is in anticipation of an in-person meeting between President Donald Trump and Erdogan, though this is unlikely to occur until after April 16, the date Turkey has scheduled a constitutional referendum which would abolish the office of the prime minister and replace it with a vice president. “U.S. officials have reportedly informed Ankara that there are conventions such as not having private discussions with politicians from countries that are within 60 days of a national election,” Hurriyet noted.

Sabah, a Turkish newspaper favorable to Erdogan, suggests that Tillerson will discuss, among other topics, the anti-Islamic State coalition’s plan to eradicate the jihadist group from Raqqa, Syria, the “capital” of its so-called Caliphate. “Ankara and Washington are still negotiating the details of the Raqqa offensive, as some U.S. generals want to arm terror group PKK’s Syrian armed wing the YPG with heavy weaponry and more armored vehicles, in order to swiftly retake the city,” Sabah notes.

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is a U.S.-designated Marxist terrorist group. The Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) are the military wing of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), a political coalition seeking a free Kurdistan on Syrian soil. The YPG is considered one of the most successful anti-ISIS militias and often cooperates with the United States to organize airstrikes against jihadi targets. The Turkish government considers the PKK and the YPG the same organization, an opinion Washington does not share.

The U.S. government and the other major actor in the region, Russia, have made clear to Ankara that they hope to see YPG participation in the liberation of Raqqa, though that city falls outside of the borders of Rojava, or Syrian Kurdistan. Pentagon spokesman Col. John Dorrian emphasized U.S. support for the YPG on Thursday: “I think I’d like to leave it at we would expect Kurds to be involved. And that’s probably about where we’re at.”

As for Turkey, “we haven’t come to an agreement about what [Turkey’s] role will be or if there will be one,” he told reporters. The Sabah report cites “multiple Washington sources” saying that the Pentagon did not appear to be impressed with Turkey’s alternative plan to use the Free Syrian Army, a coalition of Arab fighters whose vetting long posed a challenge to the Obama administration, instead of the YPG.

In addition to uncertainty regarding the battle against the Islamic State, Tillerson himself has just begun his work at the State Department and represents something of an unknown for the Turkish government. Hurriyet notes that Tillerson has previously called for the U.S. to “re-engage with President Erdogan,” but a column on Anadolu regarding Tillerson’s background described Tillerson’s State Department as “impotent” and expressed concern that his lack of a diplomatic background could pose a challenge. The article nonetheless noted that, during his first international engagement as secretary of state, Tillerson appeared to impress foreign diplomats.

Tillerson will be the second high-ranking Trump administration official to visit Turkey after CIA head Mike Pompeo met with Erdogan, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, and Turkish intelligence agency (MIT) head Hakan Fidan in February.