The specter of a U.S.-Turkish clash in Syria loomed over Thursday's meeting between the top American diplomat and Turkey's leader as the two NATO allies scrambled to ease some of their worst tensions in years.
Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan , is fuming over U.S. assistance to Kurdish fighters near his country's border. The talks with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson were to focus on Washington's plan to continue providing the Kurdish militants assistance and Turkey's military operations in Kurdish areas of northern Syria.
The discussions were expected to cover several proposals for improving cooperation along the border area. It's been a flashpoint over the years for Turkish-Kurdish tensions, al-Qaida and Islamic State fighters traveling back and forth, and incidents involving major powers including Russia.
Reflecting the sensitivity of the talks between Tillerson and Erdogan, only Turkish Foreign Minister Melvut Cavusoglu, serving as translator, also was included in the meeting, which lasted more than three hours.
Erdogan's office said the discussions touched on regional developments, including in Syria and Iraq, the fight against terrorism and bilateral relations. "Turkey's expectations and priorities on these issues were clearly communicated," according to a brief statement.
A U.S. statement cited "a productive and open conversation about a mutually beneficial way forward in the U.S.-Turkey relationship."
When Tillerson returned to his hotel, he was asked by reporters whether he could provide some detail. "Not tonight, we're still working," he said. Tillerson and Cavusoglu planned a news conference Friday after their meeting.
Tillerson, finishing a five-nation Middle East trip, said earlier in the day in Lebanon that U.S. and Turkey share common goals in Syria.
"There's no gap between them," he told reporters in Beirut. "We have some differences about tactically how to achieve that endpoint objective, but our objectives are to defeat ISIS, to defeat terrorism, to reduce the violence, protect people and support a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Syria."
In Brussels, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the United States and Turkey are in open dialogue about their differences. Turkey's defense minister was among those he met at NATO.
"I believe we are finding common ground and there are areas of uncommon ground where sometimes war just gives you bad alternatives to choose from," Mattis said.
Turkey is livid over America's military support for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. The U.S. considers them 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 considers the fighters a terrorist group and an extension of a Kurdish insurgency in Turkey and views the U.S. military support for the Kurds in Syria as a top security threat. Turkey's military campaign against Kurds in northern Syria has alarmed the U.S. leaders who have watched as the fighting has sapped energy from the fight against remaining IS strongholds.
Turkey's defense minister, Nurettin Canikli, said in Brussels he has asked that the U.S. end its assistance to Kurdish fighters and remove them from the SDF.
Canikli said he told Mattis that U.S. support for such militants has enabled Kurdish rebels in Turkey "to grow and strengthen," posing an increasingly "existential" danger to Turkey. Canikli said he presented documents to Mattis proving "organic" links between the Kurdish fighters in Syria and Kurdish rebels in Turkey.
It was an "absolutely open and honest dialogue," Mattis said, describing the two countries as "coming together on what we can do together."
According to Canikli, Mattis said the U.S. believes it is possible to ensure that the Kurdish forces in Syria turn against Kurdish rebels fighting in Turkey. Canikli said he rejected this assumption, insisting it was "impossible and unrealistic" for the two entities to go against each other.
The Turkish minister also reported Mattis as saying the U.S. was developing plans to take back weapons supplied to the Syrian Kurds.
Turkey has been attacking the Kurds in northern Syria for the past three weeks, despite American calls for restraint. The standoff has fueled increasingly angry rhetoric, including Erdogan's warning that Turkey's foes may feel "the Ottoman slap," a reference to the Ottoman Empire's onetime might.
Regarding Secretary Mattis' meeting with his Turkish countepart, Pentagon Chief Spokesperson Dana W. White provided the following readout:
Secretary of Defense James Mattis met with Turkish Minister of Defense Nurettin Canikli Wednesday at the NATO Defense Ministerial to reaffirm the longstanding defense relationship between the U.S. and our NATO ally, Turkey.
Secretary Mattis acknowledged Turkey’s legitimate security concerns and reiterated our commitment to help Turkey fight the PKK and threat of insurgency within its borders.
The two ministers also discussed the complex security environment in Syria, and the danger a resurgent ISIS could pose to all NATO allies. Secretary Mattis called for a renewed focus on the campaign to defeat ISIS and prevent any remnants of the terrorist organization from re-emerging.
Secretary Mattis thanked Minister Canikli for Turkey's contributions to global security. The two leaders agreed to continue strengthening U.S.-Turkey defense cooperation.