Rex Tillerson’s Turkey visit: A critical juncture

The outcome of US Secretary of State Tillerson’s first visit to Ankara may determine the future of Turkey-US relations.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meets with Afghan Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani at the State Department in Washington
The US is gradually withdrawing from the Middle East and this withdrawal is allowing Russia to raise its profile in the region, writes Gurcan [Joshua Roberts/Reuters]

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is to visit Turkey on March 30, undoubtedly with a briefcase full of thick files dedicated to major issues the United States and Turkey are struggling to settle.

Tillerson’s visit will be the highest-level meeting between Turkish and American officials since President Donald Trump moved in to the White House in January and it will most certainly be dominated by three major issues that are currently shaping the political dynamics of the Middle East.

First of all, even though the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is reaching its final phase, it is nowhere close to ending and all global, regional and even local actors in the wider Middle East are now taking revisionist stances and making it clear that they do not want to return to the pre-ISIL status quo.

Secondly, Iran is becoming a very capable security actor in the Middle East by filling the gaps in its conventional military deterrence capabilities by unconventional means, such as supporting Shia militias in Iraq, Syria and Yemen and maintaining ambitious arms programmes.

And finally the US is gradually withdrawing from the Middle East – particularly in the domain of security and defence – and this withdrawal is allowing Russia to raise its profile in the region.

We can confidently assume that all of these three issues are going to be discussed during Tillerson’s visit to Turkey. But the outcome of this important visit is going to be shaped by Washignton’s top priorities. 

So, lets dive in to the suitcase Tillerson prepared for his Turkey visit and try to understand which one of these three major issues is likely to occupy a thicker file – or has priority in the US agenda. 

Choosing a primary enemy in the region

First and foremost, Turkey would like to know if Tillerson is going to be focusing on the fight against ISIL or if the US plans to contain Iran’s regional influence.

This question is extremely significant for Ankara because if the Trump administration decides to prioritise confronting Iran’s rise in the region – with military force if necessary – Turkey is undoubtedly going to be one of its major allies in this fight, and consequently Turkey-US relations are going to prosper.

READ MORE: What is behind the hostility between Iran and Turkey?

But if the US decides to pursue an “ISIL-first” approach in the Middle East and Tillerson shows up in Ankara with a suitcase full of plans to “eradicate radical Islam” at any cost, Turkey-US relations may come under further strain.

The YPG problem

The perplexing question is how long Turkey will be able to manage the divergent interests of the US and Russia.


Recently, a visible rift has formed between the US and Turkey as a result of Washington’s apparent support for the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the fight against ISIL.

The YPG is a Kurdish armed group dominating the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is the US’ major local partner against ISIL.

Turkey wants the US to scrap its ties with the YPG completely, because the YPG is linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is on Tillerson’s department list of terrorist organisations, and has been leading a four-decade long bloody insurgency inside Turkey.

Turkey made it clear time and time again that it would not allow the YPG to take the lead during the anticipated Raqqa offensive against ISIL.

All signs on the ground, however, indicate that Ankara could not provide Washington with a workable plan excluding the YPG from the anticipated battle for Raqqa.

READ MORE: The battle for Raqqa explained

Tillerson’s visit will thus be Ankara’s last chance to persuade the US to drop the YPG and focus on working on an alternative plan to defeat ISIL – that includes different interlocutors and local allies – which satisfies Turkey.

Turkey’s unexpected alliance with Russia 

Another file that is expected to be in Tillerson’s briefcase – and is causing concern for Ankara – is the one on Russia. Will the Trump administration peacefully welcome Russia’s ascendancy in the region or is a confrontation between the two powers unavoidable?

Ankara, as a result of a deepening mistrust in its traditional Western allies, seeks to institutionalise its “unexpected alliance” with Russia. But Moscow, in order to strengthen this newly formed and fragile alliance, may ask Turkey to change its traditional geopolitical (NATO) and geo-economic (EU) orientation. Such a drastic  change in Turkey’s international standing would push the European Union and NATO into a crisis marked by uncertainty and Washington is clearly aware of this risk.

READ MORE: CIA chief in Ankara – A security partnership?

The important question is how long will Turkey be able to manage the divergent interests of the US and Russia? Whether Turkey will opt for close cooperation with Russia or the US in northern Syria is not a routine foreign policy decision, but a major one that will certainly determine the path Turkey will be following in years to come.

Difficult compromise

Overall, both Ankara and Washington seem to be solely focusing on their own immediate interests and are somewhat oblivious to the massive changes that are currently taking place in the Middle East.  

As far as we can see, they are not working towards forming a joint mechanism to manage and coordinate the new reality in the region based on actions on the ground rather than words. 

This obliviousness will naturally cause more crises, more confusion and maybe something worse – a total disintegration of confidence in US-Turkey relations.

The paradigm in the wider Middle East is currently more complicated than ever before, with multiple actors operating on multiple levels, based on their conflicting interests. This causes confusion and problems – both for the US and Turkey – in identifying proper interlocutors. 

I think neither Tillerson, nor his Turkish counterpart has prepared a file entitled  “How to identify a proper interlocutor?” for their upcoming meeting and both parties seem to be slowly losing an appetite for working towards a compromise that may satisfy both the US and Turkish interests in the region.

OPINION: The Turkey-EU fallout

So all we can do at the moment is hope that before coming to Turkey, Tillerson will remember to pack a couple of appetite stimulating pills in his suitcase, alongside the thick – and highly problematic – files on ISIL, Iran and Russia. It is up to Tillerson to enhance its ally’s appetite for cooperation, because I am pretty sure that Ankara has no appetite stimulating pills left to offer to the US.

Dr Metin Gurcan is a Turkish security analyst and research fellow at the Istanbul Policy Centre (IPC), Sabancı University.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.