ISTANBUL (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will visit Turkey on March 30, Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Thursday, in what is likely to be the most high-level meeting with Ankara since U.S. President Donald Trump took office in January.
Ties between the United States and Turkey – which has the second largest army in the NATO alliance and is key to the U.S.-led fight against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq – deteriorated sharply in the last year of the Barack Obama administration.
“Rex Tillerson has said that he would like to come to Turkey on March 30,” Cavusoglu said in an interview with broadcaster Haberturk. “I have told him that we will be in Ankara and available and would happily host him,” Cavusoglu said.
Tillerson was likely to also meet with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, he said.
Erdogan and the Turkish government want the United States to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Islamic cleric who Ankara blames for orchestrating last year’s failed coup. Gulen denies involvement in the coup attempt.
Ankara has also been angered by U.S. support for the Kurdish YPG militia fighting Islamic State in Syria. It is adamant that Washington should switch support for the planned Raqqa offensive from the YPG militia to Syrian rebels that Turkey has trained.
For the U.S. administration, nervous about whether the Turkish-backed force is large enough and sufficiently trained, the decision sets Trump’s wish for quick battlefield victories against the need to maintain its strategic alliance with Turkey.
Ankara views the YPG as the Syrian extension of the Kurdish PKK militant group, which has fought an insurgency in Turkey’s southeast since 1984 and is considered a terrorist group by both the United States and European Union.
Erdogan believes ties will improve under Trump. A phone call between the two earlier last month was positive, sources in Erdogan’s office have said.
(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Robin Pomeroy and Richard Lough)