Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, left, and with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu after their news conference in Ankara, Turkey, on March 30, 2017. (Tumay Berkin/European Pressphoto Agency)

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson traveled to Turkey on Thursday hoping to preserve the Trump administration’s cordial relationship with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan despite deep policy disagreements that threaten to drive the allies apart.

But flashes of tension during the visit left doubts about whether Tillerson had succeeded and raised new questions about the future of the U.S. relationship with the NATO ally and partner in the broader fight against the Islamic State militant group.

Even before Tillerson landed, Turkish officials this week leaked to the local news media a damaging rumor about the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul that seemed timed to put pressure on the secretary’s visit. At a news conference with Tillerson on Thursday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavus­oglu recited a litany of complaints, including annoyance with a U.S. plan to support Kurdish fighters in Syria. Turkey says the fighters are part of a terrorist group.

Tillerson said his discussions in Turkey, which included a two-hour meeting with Erdogan, had been “frank.”

(The Washington Post)

“These are not easy decisions,” he said, referring to the debates with Turkey over combat strategy in Syria. There was “no space between Turkey and the United States in our commitment to defeat” the Islamic State, he said. “But there were difficult choices that need to be made.”

Erdogan has pinned lofty hopes on his relationship with President Trump, betting that the new leader would be a more sympathetic partner than his predecessor. Turkey’s frustrations with President Barack Obama stemmed from anger at
a U.S. plan to support a ­Kurdish-Arab force in Syria for an assault on Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State militants. Turkey is concerned that the plan could strengthen Syrian Kurdish fighters it regards as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a Kurdish separatist group outlawed in Turkey.

Another sore spot is Washington’s noncompliance with a request to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish Muslim cleric living in exile in Pennsylvania. Turkey accuses Gulen of spearheading a coup attempt against Erdogan’s government last summer.

U.S. officials say the evidence provided by Turkey so far is insufficient to make a legal case for extradition. 

On Thursday, Tillerson was full of praise for Turkey, calling the nation a “long-standing ally” and “friend” and expressing sympathy for victims of attacks by Kurdish militants. He did not comment on the Turkish government’s broad purge of state institutions after last summer’s coup attempt or the ongoing crackdown on civil ­society activists, journalists and academics.

Tillerson also did not meet with any of Erdogan’s political opponents, because there was no time in his schedule, U.S. officials said.   

Still, Trump, who spoke in glowing terms about Erdogan during the U.S. presidential campaign, has shown no sign of deviating from Obama-era policies that had so angered Turkey, including a reliance on the Syrian Kurdish force, known as the ­People’s Protection Units, or YPG. In the months since Trump took office, the United States and Turkey have managed to avoid any open confrontation over their differences, with Turkish officials showing optimism that the relationship could only improve.

Something may have changed this week, however.

On Wednesday, Turkish news media reported that a telephone call had been made from the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul to one of the top suspects in last summer’s military coup attempt — an incendiary allegation ahead of Tillerson’s visit. The U.S. Embassy in Ankara quickly issued a statement confirming the phone call on July 21. But the embassy said the call was “far from suspicious” and was made to inform the suspect, Adil Oksuz, that his U.S. visa had been revoked at the behest of Turkish authorities. 

Turkish authorities say Oksuz, a theology professor from Ankara, was a top aide to Gulen. Prosecutors think Oksuz helped facilitate meetings between renegade generals in Ankara ahead of the July 15 coup attempt, according to Turkish media reports.

The U.S. Embassy’s explanation for the call did little to quiet the controversy. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said the government was waiting “for a more satisfying answer” from the United States.

At the news conference Thursday, Cavusoglu also cast doubt on the embassy’s account, saying, “We want to see the details in concrete terms.”

The Turkish president and his supporters are seen as especially volatile partners these days, as they fight for votes at home in advance of a referendum in April that could give Erdogan broad new powers and extend his term in office. The referendum has already sparked bitter fights between Turkey and several European allies, including Germany and the Netherlands. U.S. officials said Tillerson was well aware of that context before he traveled to Ankara.  

Meanwhile on Thursday, Belgian media reported that fighting broke out among Erdogan’s supporters and opponents as Turks lined up to vote in the referendum at the Turkish Embassy in Brussels, the Associated Press reported.

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said via Twitter that he will “apply zero tolerance for violence surrounding the Turkish referendum.”

Turkish citizens in six European countries have until April 9 to vote in the referendum.

Erin Cunningham in Istanbul contributed to this report.