Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s team is “taking the high road” when it comes to replying to heated rhetoric from a Turkey, a NATO ally angered by U.S. operations in Syria, his spokeswoman said.
“We’re used to that kind of rhetoric, whether it’s from the Turkish government or from other governments, and so that's why we don’t get too riled about that,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters Tuesday. “We hear other governments, other foreign leaders say things about us, post things about us on social media, all of that — it’s not going to get us riled up. We’re sticking to the policy.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened U.S. soldiers with an “Ottoman slap” if they impede his government’s military operations against Syrian Kurds, known as the YPG. The Syrian Kurds, like their Iraqi counterparts, proved to be the most effective local fighters in the U.S. coalition to defeat the Islamic State as a landholding power, but Erdogan worries they might link up with the PKK — Turkish Kurds who are designated terrorists for fighting a separatist war against the central government.
“We’re taking the high road,” Nauert said. “This is something that, we recognize that Turkey has legitimate security concerns. We will talk with our ally about their legitimate security concerns and also our concerns about the escalation of violence.”
Tillerson is headed to Turkey for meetings to defuse the situation, which has seen Turkish forces attack U.S.-backed rebels and an American general personally warn pro-Turkey militias not to attack a city held by U.S. and coalition forces.
“Ties with the U.S. are at a very critical point,” Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu told reporters in remarks published overnight. “We will either fix these relations or they will break completely.”
The rhetoric from Erdogan and Çavuşoğlu confirms U.S. expectations for how the meetings might unfold. “[T]his is a tough target,” a senior State Department official told reporters during a Monday briefing. “We believe there’s a way to work through, walk through, these problems, and that’s why the secretary is going to Ankara, to have those discussions; why a succession of senior U.S. officials have reached out, have engaged the Turks on the threat that they see, measures that might be taken to address that threat.”