US' Tillerson to meet Turkey's Erdogan in visit seen as make-or-break

Istanbul - Relations between Turkey and the United States have reached a low not seen in decades, giving US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson a tough task as he lands later on Thursday for meetings in Ankara.

Turkey is angered that the US has partnered in Syria with the Kurdish YPG militia as the main ground force to fight the Islamic State extremist organization. Ankara labels the YPG a terrorist organization over its links to Turkish-Kurdish insurgents.
Turkish Defence Minister Nurettin Canikli, speaking in Brussels after meeting his US counterpart James Mattis, said Ankara expects the US to "completely end its relationship with the YPG."
Mattis, expressing the US priority in Syria of defeating Islamic State, called for a "renewed focus on the campaign to defeat ISIS [Islamic State]."
Ankara last month launched an ongoing military offensive against the Syrian-Kurdish enclave Afrin. The US has repeatedly said it sees the offensive as detracting from the war against Islamic State.
While the US has no presence in Afrin it does have troops patrolling other areas of northern Syria held by a YPG-led force. Turkey has threatened to move into those regions, sparking concerns of a military confrontation between NATO allies.
"If the US sides with the YPG to wage war against us, we will then also fight against them," Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told Germany's ARD broadcaster.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, set to meet Tillerson later on Thursday, was even more forceful, warning earlier this week about delivering an "Ottoman slap" to US forces.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has defined the Tillerson trip as one that will see relations either improve or deteriorate entirely.
Adding to bilateral tensions is the fact that some US citizens and consulate employees are currently jailed in Turkey.
The meeting between Canikli and Mattis showed the sides appeared to agree on little regarding Syria, with Turkey focused on the Kurds and the US looking to ensure Islamic State is defeated and areas taken back are stabilized. 
There is no indication the US plans to pull its support for Syrian-Kurdish forces who make up the lead fighters in the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a grouping that also includes Arabs. Budgets for 2019 show continued support for the SDF.
Turkish media has increasingly turned anti-American and opinion polls show the population distrusts Washington. The Ankara municipality this week renamed a street by the US embassy "Olive Branch," the name of the Afrin operation.
A number of other issues are also damaging the longstanding alliance between NATO allies Turkey and the US, including Ankara growing closer to Russia and Iran and its efforts to purchase an advanced air defence system, the S-400, from Moscow.
Turkey is meanwhile demanding the US extradite a cleric, Fethullah Gulen, who it accuses of orchestrating a coup attempt in 2016. US officials have indicated there is not enough evidence for such a move.

Thursday, February 15th 2018
By Shabtai Gold,

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