International Affairs

What Tillerson’s meeting in Turkey reveals about Trump’s America First


Much has been made in the press about U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley’s refuting the rhetoric of the previous administration that “Assad must go” in Syria. Given less attention, but arguably of more importance given Turkey’s location, its NATO membership, and its facilities useful in the counterterrorism fight, were statements consistent with Haley’s made by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Ankara on March 30.

{mosads}While in Ankara, Tillerson also signaled support for a safe zone — renamed “zone of stability” in a March 27 preview of his trip — in northern Syria along the border with Turkey (and possibly another in southern Syria on the border with Jordan). Tillerson also touched on elements of concern, even conflict, that contribute to tension between the U.S. and Turkey, such as the recent arrest of Mehmet Hakan Atilla, deputy head of Halk Bank, and the continuing Turkish efforts to have Fethullah Gülen extradited from the U.S.


These points suffice to develop a better understanding of the Trump administration’s America First foreign policy, revealing key elements for U.S. foreign relation going forward.

Assad must go (but only if the Syrians say so)

Ambassador Haley has been clear that she and others in the current administration recognize Bashar Assad as a war criminal who has brutalized his nation’s citizens in the most appalling manner, including the horrific gas attack ascribed to Assad’s forces on April 4. That said, they realize that all the rhetoric of years gone demanding his removal from office had little if any effect on the situation in Syria. 

They note that a resolution of the conflict in Syria and the restoration of stability required for refugees and displaced persons to return to their homes must be a diplomatic and political arrangement that takes into account the reality of Assad’s grip on power and his strong backing by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. They likely see no chance that Tehran will press Assad to come to an accommodation with his opponents and those opponents’ backers. Realism demands that peace in Syria go through Moscow, and that has a better chance of success if Moscow, and Ankara, sees the U.S. seeking stability and security, not regime change.

The issue with ISIS

Tillerson alluded to these thoughts in Ankara on March 30, stating that the fate of Assad is for the Syrian people to decide, a phrasing not too far from words Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has used in the past regarding Assad’s future status. During his joint press availability with Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Tillerson made defeating ISIS the priority for joint action in Syria. Interestingly, he praised Turkish efforts to stop the flow of foreign fighters, graciously choosing not to mention that thousands of foreign fighters had used Turkey’s airports and roads to travel to Syria and join the opposition or ISIS. When questioned about the role of Kurdish fighters in the Syrian Defense Forces that Ankara considers PKK-allied terrorists, Tillerson reiterated praise for all the constructive dialogue with Turkey and the deepening of coordination in the fight against terror.


Lebanon and Jordan are hosting proportionally more refugees than Turkey, but most seem to be staying in those two countries once they get there. Of the estimated 3 million Syrians who have fled into Turkey, many reportedly struggle to reach Europe, at times with tragic and heart breaking results. It is not cynicism but realism to assess that if Europe were not facing a rising number of refugees from Syria via Turkey, many, if not most, Western countries would not mention the refugees when discussing how to resolve the Syria crises. 

Tillerson did mention it. Unsaid, but likely thought, was the current U.S. administration’s concern that terrorists use refugees’ movements as cover to travel to Europe and then onto the U.S. Regardless of how well-founded such concerns are, in all likelihood Tillerson raised concerns about the refugees as much from a focus on blunting terrorists’ clandestine travel as from humanitarianism.

In a related development, Tillerson signaled support for zones of stability in northern Syria along the Turkish border so that refugees could begin the process of returning home and reducing the strain on Turkey (and reducing the chance of a terrorist in refugee guise sneaking to Europe or the U.S.). 

Gülen and the banker, and the missionary

As expected, Tillerson and Çavuşoğlu were asked about the extradition of Fethullah Gülen, a legal permanent resident of the U.S. considered by the government of Turkey to be the mastermind of the July 15, 2016, failed coup attempt. That attempt left hundreds dead, traumatized the nation, and led to the purge of tens of thousands of alleged coup perpetrators, supporters and sympathizers, to include many members of Hizmet, a Gülen-inspired movement. Tillerson reiterated the talking points that the Department of Justice is examining the documentation in support of the extradition request and will proceed in conformity with the law. He also refuted attempts by the press to link Mehmet Atilla’s arrest to the extradition request and underlined the legal processes will be followed in both cases.

One journalist raised the case of Andrew Brunson, a Christian pastor, implying that he was arrested to put pressure on the U.S. government to deliver Gülen. Both Tillerson and Çavuşoğlu dismissed this linkage, with Tillerson adding that the U.S. consulate was fulfilling its obligation toward a U.S. citizen arrested abroad, while Çavuşoğlu noted that justice would prevail as the judges in Turkey are independent. 

All signs point to…

Both Haley and Tillerson provide indications of what America First means in U.S. foreign relations. Statements from the podium to the press and in news interviews have not come to an end, but they will not go into detailed plans or make promises to be left unfulfilled — speak little, but mean what you say and only say what you mean is clearly the operational mantra. 

The March 27 preview teleconference indicates the media will be used to convey the administrations expectations and goals, but diplomacy will largely be conducted away from the cameras. Tillerson clearly prefers meeting his foreign interlocutors with few staff present, reportedly having a few one-on-one meetings in Ankara to ensure confidentiality. Interventions are unlikely. Even limited intervention by supporting local parties will require a clear determination of the U.S. interests to be protected — setting up zones of stability to relieve refugee pressure on allies (Turkey and other NATO members) or forestalling terrorists using the cover of refugees to reach the U.S. will call forth action and even deployment of some troops, but efforts at regime change, whether Syria’s Assad or others, appears off the table.

Whether having learned its lesson with the temporary travel/visa ban effort or because steadier hands are now on the tiller at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations and State, the rule of law will be respected and provide guidance for U.S. actions with other states concerning U.S. nationals.


Ed Stafford is a retired foreign service officer whose last overseas assignment was to the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey (2011-2014).

The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags America first Bashar Assad Diplomacy Fethullah Gülen ISIS Mehmet Hakan Atilla Mevlut Cavusoglu Nikki Haley refugees Rex Tillerson State Department Syria Turkey
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