ANKARA: Turkey and United States on Friday agreed to work together in Syria after weeks of tensions over Ankara’s latest cross-border operation that raised fears of a military confrontation between the two Nato allies. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu said after talks in Ankara that the two sides would set up working groups to solve key issues that have bedevilled relations.
They gave few details on how this could be achieved, but indicated that solving a dispute over the control of the flashpoint town of Manbij was a priority.
“We are not going to act alone any longer, not US doing one thing, Turkey doing another,” Tillerson said after the talks.
“We will work together… we have good mechanisms on how we can achieve this, there is a lot of work to be done,” he added.
Cavusoglu said Turkey and the US were agreed on the need to normalise relations.
He said that ties were at a “critical phase” and vowed to create “mechanisms” to discuss the issues that were causing problems.
A prime task of Tillerson on his trip to Ankara is to allay Turkish anger over US policy in Syria, a dispute which has ignited the biggest crisis in bilateral ties since the 2003 Iraq war.
Washington has warned that Turkey’s operation against the People’s Protection Units (YPG) Kurdish militia in the Afrin region of Syria risks distracting from the fight against militants.
Tillerson called on Ankara to “show restraint in its operation” while insisting that Turkey and the United States “share the same objectives in Syria”. Tillerson the day earlier held over three hours of talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with presidential sources saying the Turkish leader “openly” laid out Turkey’s expectations and priorities.
In a hugely unusual break from protocol, the only other official present at Tillerson’s meeting with Erdogan at the presidential palace was Cavusoglu who also acted as translator, US sources said.
Analysts say the level of tension was similar to 2003 when Turkey refused to let US troops operate from its territory for the Iraq war, or even the aftermath of Ankara’s invasion of Cyprus in 1974.
Turkey’s operation against the YPG, which Ankara blacklists as a terror group, has seen Turkish troops fighting a militia which is closely allied with the US in the battle against IS group militants.
For Ankara, the YPG is a branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is blacklisted as a terror outfit by the US and the EU.
Erdogan this month upped the ante by warning US troops to leave Manbij, a YPG-held town east of Afrin, raising fears of a clash between the allies. The United States has a military presence in Manbij.
He even warned that the US risked being dealt an “Ottoman slap” in Syria — a backhand thwack which, according to legend, could kill an opponent at a stroke. But Tillerson added that Turkey and the United States had to solve the tensions surrounding Manbij as a “priority”.
“Manbij is going to be given priority in our joint working effort,” he said.
The town was once held by IS before they were pushed out by Kurdish militia and Tillerson said it was vital it did not fall again into militant hands.
In a joint statement, Washington and Ankara agreed they would “decisively stand against all attempts to create faits accomplis and demographic changes within Syria” as part of their commitment to the preservation of Syria’s territorial integrity.
The squabble over Syria is, however, just one of a litany of issues burdening Turkey-US relations.
Ties were damaged after the failed coup of 2016 with Turkey stung by a perceived lack of US solidarity and angered by Washington’s refusal to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Pennsylvania-based cleric accused of ordering the putsch.
Tillerson has also urged the release of Turkish citizens who have been caught up in the post-coup crackdown.
Last week, Nasa scientist Serkan Golge, a dual national, was jailed for seven-and-a-half years for being a member of Gulen’s movement.
US pastor Andrew Brunson, who ran a church in Izmir, has been held on similar charges since October 2016.