Rex Tillerson Tells Turkey That There Will Be 'Difficult Choices' in Battle Against ISIS in Syria

Erdogan meets with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan meets with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Ankara, March 30. Yasin Bulbul/Handout

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has told Turkey that tough decisions lie ahead in the fight to take back key cities from the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) in Syria as the two nations wrangle over the role of Kurdish forces.

Tillerson was speaking in Ankara after meetings with the Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan. In the first meeting of Trump administration officials with Turkish ministers, Tillerson discussed the differences between the countries on the war in Syria.

Turkey has become increasingly frustrated with continued U.S. continued support for the Syrian Kurdish militia the People's Protection Units (YPG). The armed group formed the first bulwark against ISIS as it expanded across Syria and Iraq in 2014 and the Pentagon has provided funding and support in the ongoing battle.

Ankara, however, views the YPG as an extremist group, part of Kurdish separatists the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). The PKK has waged a 30-year-long ground war inside Turkey, seeking an independent Kurdistan. They frequently target Turkish police and military targets, particularly in the country's ethnic Kurdish regions in the restive south east.

The crucial question facing the coalition against ISIS is how it will proceed with the offensive against ISIS in Raqqa, the group's its de-facto capital in Syria. The U.S.-led coalition looks almost certain to back the Kurds in the assault on the city itself.

"What we discussed today are options that are available to us. They are difficult options. Let me be very frank, it's not easy, they are difficult choices that have to be made," Tillerson told a joint news conference with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.

Read more: Inside the U.S.-Turkish rift over destroying ISIS in Raqqa

Turkey called off its operation in Syria, Operation Euphrates Shield, on Monday, saying it had achieved its stated goal of protecting its borders from ISIS. However, the operation had also focused on countering the creation of a Kurdish-held region along Turkey's southern border.

While Tillerson said he had discussed several strategies with Turkish leaders for the assault on Raqqa, clear differences still remain. Cavusoglu said, in Turkish, that continuing support for the YPG had "negatively affected the Turkish people's sentiments toward the United States."

The Trump administration has made moves to revive ties with Turkey. The central Kurdish disagreement led to a nadir in relations between Ankara and Washington under the previous president Barack Obama.

"The fact [Trump] is not putting pressure for domestic reforms, liberal reforms or attention to human rights [in Turkey] certainly removes one obstacle and certainly makes Trump seem like somebody that Erdogan could more easily work with," Leslie Vinjamuri, an associate fellow at Chatham House's U.S. and the Americas tells Newsweek.

She says that the transition from Obama to Trump was an important change for U.S.-Turkey relations but added that the perennial issue of the Kurds would remain a sticking point for both sides. " It is an important shift but the broader calculation doesn't become easier… because of course the Kurdish problem is unresolved and that is really the issue," she says.