BREAKING NEWS Officer-involved shooting at Verona Convenience Store Full Story

Tillerson faces prospect of 'Ottoman slap' amid Turkey tensions

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson faces perhaps the most difficult stop of his Mideast trip in Turkey, where President...

Posted: Feb 15, 2018 11:33 AM
Updated: Feb 15, 2018 11:33 AM

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson faces perhaps the most difficult stop of his Mideast trip in Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has doubled down on anti-American rhetoric by appearing to threaten US troops in Syria.

Turkey has bristled at the US military's alliance with Syrian Kurds to fight ISIS, fearing the Syrian group will one day help Turkish Kurds make a push for independence. Turkey has sent its troops to attack a Kurdish enclave in Syria and it threatens to push into a town where US forces train Kurds and others, leading the Pentagon to warn Ankara away.

"It is clear that those who say, 'We will respond aggressively if you hit us,' have never experienced an Ottoman slap," Erdogan said in response on Tuesday, according to news reports.

Erdogan's comment was just the latest salvo from an ally who has accused the US of complicity in a coup attempt, eroded democratic norms within the country, jailed Americans on flimsy grounds and detained US consulate workers.

Beyond threats about a clash with US forces, Turkey's move to attack the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northwest Syria could undermine the coalition fight against ISIS, as Kurdish YPG fighters who are helping the US rout the terrorist group in the east have begun leaving to help their compatriots in Afrin.

At the State Department, spokesman Heather Nauert brushed off Erdogan's "slap," saying, "We're used to that kind of rhetoric." On the road in Jordan, Tillerson calmly stressed the long game.

"Turkey is still an important NATO ally of the United States, they're still a very important partner in the region for us, and we need to find a way to continue to work in the same direction," Tillerson told reporters in Amman. He stressed that the two countries still share goals for Syria and the US recognizes Turkey's security concerns.

"So we hope to have talks about how we can work cooperatively to lessen those threats to Turkey but ultimately achieve the objective in Syria, which is the full and enduring defeat of ISIS, the de-escalation of violence in Syria," and progress with peace talks that stabilize Syria, Tillerson said.

But Tillerson "has a tough set of meetings and a tough job ahead of him when he's in Ankara," said Ross Wilson, who was the US ambassador to Turkey from 2005 to 2008. "It's a very fraught time," Wilson said. "There's an immense amount of tension in US-Turkey relations."

Luke Coffey, director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation, noted that "a lot of [Erdogan's] rhetoric is for a domestic audience, and it's not new."

Repaired or completely damaged

Turkish bitterness escalated after the US aligned with the YPG in 2016, which proved to be the most effective fighting force on the ground against ISIS, said Wilson, who's now a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council. Wilson added that the "decisions to cooperate with the YPG have been military ones, not strategic ones about calibrating the relationship with Turkey. It's almost transactional. This is what we've had to do to combat ISIS."

The White House, signaling its sensitivity to Turkey's "legitimate security concerns," sent National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster to Istanbul on Sunday to underscore that message over the weekend, but his Turkish counterparts weren't receptive.

After McMaster's meetings, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned that Turkish-US ties had hit a critical point, and would either be repaired or completely damaged.

A US announcement in mid-January that it would form a 30,000-strong Kurdish-led border force in northeastern Syria sparked this heightened period of US-Turkey tension.

Erdogan accused the US of "building an army of terror" on his border and, in extraordinary language from a fellow NATO ally, threatened to "drown" the US-backed force.

While the US backed away from the plan and Tillerson said it had been "misportrayed, misdescribed," tensions escalated as Turkey moved into Afrin. It has since threatened to push further to Manbij, where US Special Operations Forces are supporting Syrian Kurds.

The Turkish government could retaliate by imposing greater costs on the US military for choosing to work with the YPG, Wilson said, including limited access to its Incirlik air base, which has made operations for the coalition against ISIS cheaper and easier.

"The fact that the Turks have not chosen to go down that road so far," Wilson said, might indicate that "it should be possible to calm things down. The mere fact that he is going to Turkey is helpful in and of itself."

A State Department official, speaking on background, said Tillerson would deliver the same message privately to Erdogan that the US has been stressing publicly. "We are urging them to show restraint in their operations in Afrin," the official said, "and to show restraint further along the line across the border in northern Syria."

While the US means to work with Turkey to address its security concerns, the official said the US goal is, "above all else, keeping everything focused on the defeat-ISIS fight, which is not over."

A second State Department official briefing reporters at the outset of Tillerson's trip said that, "the rhetoric is hot, the Turks are angry and this is a difficult time to do business, but it's our belief that there are still some very fundamental underlying shared interests that we have with the Turks, in terms of stability in Syria, defeating ISIS, fighting the PKK and broader questions of regional balance of power, where the Turks play an important role."

"At times like this, engagement is all the more important, but ... it's going to be a difficult conversation," the official said.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 263023

Reported Deaths: 5752
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto17675191
Hinds16813331
Harrison14224204
Rankin11167219
Jackson10839190
Lee9050144
Madison8568168
Jones6668114
Forrest6177124
Lauderdale6097192
Lowndes5518120
Lafayette516298
Lamar503965
Washington4923125
Bolivar4104109
Oktibbeha405982
Panola384881
Pontotoc376258
Warren3674103
Monroe3671108
Union355663
Marshall355270
Neshoba3485154
Pearl River3468105
Leflore3111109
Lincoln305688
Hancock291862
Sunflower291475
Tate279662
Alcorn272354
Pike268981
Itawamba268063
Scott259648
Yazoo255256
Prentiss252553
Tippah249250
Copiah249049
Coahoma248054
Simpson242171
Leake237367
Grenada223272
Marion222073
Covington219973
Adams213671
Wayne212634
Winston207371
George204339
Newton199046
Attala196963
Tishomingo194161
Chickasaw189044
Jasper179538
Holmes171768
Clay165837
Tallahatchie156235
Stone151425
Clarke147262
Calhoun140822
Smith129226
Yalobusha122034
Walthall114337
Greene113529
Noxubee112926
Montgomery111636
Carroll106622
Lawrence106517
Perry104531
Amite101426
Webster96124
Tunica88821
Claiborne88325
Jefferson Davis88329
Benton85623
Humphreys84624
Kemper80520
Quitman7089
Franklin69917
Choctaw63213
Wilkinson59825
Jefferson56821
Sharkey45117
Issaquena1606
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 439442

Reported Deaths: 6657
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson644371007
Mobile31435569
Madison28158217
Tuscaloosa21492275
Montgomery19873332
Shelby19248132
Baldwin17128189
Lee13137107
Morgan12594142
Etowah12070181
Calhoun11496206
Marshall10420123
Houston8988164
Limestone832081
Cullman8257124
Elmore8183110
DeKalb7871107
Lauderdale7847107
St. Clair7808130
Talladega6445112
Walker6028183
Jackson599145
Colbert548694
Blount546286
Autauga535862
Coffee460764
Dale409685
Franklin374150
Russell354215
Chilton344373
Covington338580
Escambia334544
Tallapoosa3143109
Dallas312996
Chambers303470
Clarke298036
Pike262431
Lawrence253355
Marion253161
Winston233342
Bibb222348
Geneva210247
Marengo208231
Pickens199531
Hale184944
Barbour180538
Fayette177829
Butler173160
Cherokee165131
Henry159525
Monroe152021
Randolph145536
Washington141727
Clay129746
Crenshaw123745
Macon121937
Cleburne121525
Lamar119922
Lowndes114836
Wilcox107922
Bullock103328
Perry99918
Conecuh97822
Sumter90527
Greene77923
Coosa63418
Choctaw51924
Out of AL00
Unassigned00
Tupelo
Cloudy
54° wxIcon
Hi: 57° Lo: 44°
Feels Like: 54°
Columbus
Cloudy
55° wxIcon
Hi: 60° Lo: 46°
Feels Like: 55°
Oxford
Cloudy
52° wxIcon
Hi: 55° Lo: 46°
Feels Like: 52°
Starkville
Cloudy
54° wxIcon
Hi: 57° Lo: 45°
Feels Like: 54°
WTVA Radar
WTVA Temperatures
WTVA Severe Weather