Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met for more than three and a half hours of tough discussions with Turkish leaders in an attempt to ease increasing tensions with a key NATO ally – but without a translator or policy aides.
The meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who translated, was highly unusual because Tillerson reportedly wasn’t accompanied by an American translator, any aides or a note-taker.
Asked about the unusual nature of the meeting, a State Department official said Tillerson has “met before with President Erdogan, and he’s okay with the foreign minister doing the translation. They have a good, strong working relationship. “
But former State Department officials said the meeting strayed from normal protocol.
“If the meeting is not conducted in English, it is foolhardy in the extreme not to have at his side a State Department translator, who can ensure that Mr. Tillerson’s points are delivered accurately and with the proper emphasis,” said former State Department spokesman and CNN diplomatic and military analyst John Kirby.
“That Mr. Tillerson eschewed this sort of support in what he knew would be a tense and critical meeting with President Erdogan smacks of either poor staff work or dangerous naïveté on his part,” Kirby added.
Tillerson is in Ankara to discuss growing tensions over the US military’s anti-ISIS alliance with the YPG, a Kurdish militia in Syria. He’s also there to stave off the possibility of clashes between Turkish and US-backed forces.
Turkey, fearing the YPG will one day help Turkish Kurds make a push for independence, has sent its troops into Syria to challenge the YPG and threatened to push into a town where US forces train Kurds and others. The Pentagon has responded forcefully, warning Ankara not to follow through.
A State Department spokesman traveling with Tillerson said he and Erdogan “engaged in a productive and open conversation about a mutually beneficial way forward in the US-Turkey relationship. We look forward to continued progress with our important NATO ally in conversations with Foreign Minister Cavusoglu tomorrow.”
But the rising US-Turkey tensions add to concerns about the unusual nature of Tillerson’s meeting.
Erdogan has accused the US of “building an army of terror” on his border and, in extraordinary language coming from a fellow NATO ally, threatened to “drown” US-backed forces in Syria.
The tensions with Turkey have become a priority concern for the administration, but they show no signs of easing.
Tillerson’s meeting with Erdogan follows a Sunday visit by national security adviser H.R. McMaster. After McMaster’s meeting with his Turkish counterpart, Cavusoglu warned that Turkey-US ties had hit a critical point and would either be repaired or be completely damaged.
Tillerson’s visit to Ankara also came shortly after a Wednesday meeting in Belgium between Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Turkish Minister of Defense Nurettin Canikli at a NATO Defense Ministerial meeting.
The two officials reaffirmed the longstanding defense relationship between the United States and Turkey.
Like other senior US officials, Mattis acknowledged the legitimate threats posed to Turkey’s national security by terrorist organizations and thanked the minister for Turkey’s continued contributions to global security.
Beyond the possibility of a clash between Turkey and US-backed forces, if not US troops themselves, US officials are concerned that Turkey’s move to attack the Kurds’ enclave of Afrin in northwest Syria is potentially undermining the coalition fight against ISIS, as YPG fighters helping the US rout ISIS in eastern Syria have begun leaving to help their compatriots in Afrin.
The Turkish push into Afrin was triggered by a US announcement in mid-January that it was going to form a 30,000-strong Kurdish-led border force in northeastern Syria.
That move led to Erdogan’s threats about drowning US-backed forces.
CNN’s Michelle Kosinski contributed reporting