ANKARA, Turkey — US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Thursday that the fate of Syrian President Bashar Assad was up to the war-ravaged country’s people.
Speaking after talks in Ankara, he added there was “no space” between Turkey and the US over fighting the so-called Islamic State group — even as his Turkish counterpart reiterated a key point of discord.
“I think the .. longer term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people,” Tillerson told a joint news conference with Melvut Cavusoglu in Ankara.
Under Barack Obama’s administration, the US made the departure of Assad a key policy aim, but new US President Donald Trump has put the accent firmly on defeating IS.
Ties between Ankara and Washington were strained under Obama particularly over US cooperation with Syrian Kurdish militia fighting against the Islamic State group.
Ankara views the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) as a “terror group” linked to Kurdish separatists waging an insurgency inside Turkey since 1984, but Washington regards them as the best force fighting the IS.
Turkey has suggested it wants to join any operation to capture the IS bastion of Raqqa but without involvement of Kurdish militia.
Tillerson hailed Turkey as a “key partner” in stabilization efforts in the fight against IS jihadists.
“There’s no space between Turkey and the US and our commitment to defeat Daesh, to defeat ISIS,” he added, using other names for IS.
But Cavusoglu said Ankara expected “better cooperation” with the Trump administration on the issue of Syrian Kurdish militia, adding that any US support for YPG would mean a risk for Syria’s future.
“It is not good or realistic to work with a terror group while fighting another terror group,” he added.
Years of diplomatic efforts have failed to end the Syrian conflict, which has killed more than 320,000 people and displaced millions since it started in March 2011 with protests against Assad’s regime.
Tillerson met Turkish leaders Thursday for talks clouded by differences over Syria, a day after Ankara announced the end of its military offensive there.
The trip comes after Turkey announced “Euphrates Shield,” its operation in northern Syria, had ended but did not say if troops had been withdrawn from the war-torn country.