ANKARA—Before Jim Mattis, the U.S. defense secretary, set off on a trip to strengthen ties with America’s allies in the Middle East and Europe, the Pentagon released a statement saying he would “look for ways to help Turkey address its legitimate security concerns,” including the fight against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), an outlawed terrorist organization that Turkish officials view as their number one threat.
In Mattis’s meetings with Turkish government officials in Ankara today, he will have to acknowledge Turkish interests while serving as the de facto face of America’s ongoing support for Kurdish groups in northern Syria in the fight against the Islamic State. Following the battle for Mosul, the U.S. military has been leading the operation to retake Raqqa. It has done this from bases in Turkey, where it provides weapons and logistical support to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which are largely composed of Kurdish militants from the People's Protection Units (YPG), a group that Turkish officials have deemed indistinguishable from the PKK. The collaboration between American and Kurdish forces has, unsurprisingly, been deeply disturbing for Turkey’s leadership.
Mattis, then, will seek to override such discord—no easy task, as the U.S. strategy against ISIS has already done long-term damage to U.S.-Turkey relations. To pull it off, he’ll have to turn a blind eye to the increasingly authoritarian governing style of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey. Since last year’s failed coup, U.S. officials have remained largely silent amid his massive crackdown on dissent, in which Turkish authorities have jailed and dismissed more than 150,000 people, including members of parliament, journalists, and international humanitarian workers, for alleged links to terror organizations.