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Tillerson works to repair ties with Turkey

The US and Turkey will create working groups to tackle unresolved areas of tension, including Washington's anti-ISIS partnership with a Kurdish group Turkey staunchly opposes.

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Nicole Gaouette
WASHINGTON (CNN) — The US and Turkey will create working groups to tackle unresolved areas of tension, including Washington's anti-ISIS partnership with a Kurdish group Turkey staunchly opposes.

Acknowledging that US-Turkey relations have been in crisis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his Turkish counterpart said Friday in Ankara that the two countries will create the groups to deal with points of friction.

Even as Tillerson called out Turkey's increasingly dire record on democratic norms, and its plans to purchase Russian military equipment in violation of US sanctions, he stressed the need to move forward.

"We find ourselves at a bit of a crisis point in the relationship," Tillerson said, acknowledging a point that Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu repeatedly made during their press appearance together.

During a meeting of more than three hours on Thursday evening, Tillerson said he and Turkish President Reccep Tayyip Erdogan decided they needed to concentrate on how to move forward.

"The relationship is too important, it's too valuable to NATO and our NATO allies, it's too valuable to the American people, it's too valuable to the Turkish people for us to not do anything other than concentrate on how are we going forward," Tillerson said.

"We know we need to move with some sense of urgency and promise to address this because we have a serious situation still inside of Syria and we need to address that jointly together," the top diplomat added.

The priority, Tillerson said, will be Manbij, a Syrian town that the Kurdish YPG, with the support of US troops, has seized from ISIS. Turkey sees the YPG as a terrorist organization and launched a military operation in Syria in response to Kurdish territorial gains.

A possible clash

Tensions surged when the Turks threatened to move toward Manbij, raising the possibility of a clash between NATO allies -- Turkish troops on one hand and on the other, US troops and the Kurds.

Manbij is strategically important to the US-led coalition's goal to contain and defeat ISIS, Tillerson said.

"It's geographically important. That's why the US has left a troop presence in Manbij to ensure that that city remains under control of our allied forces and does not fall into the hands of others," Tillerson said. "So that will be a topic of discussion in terms of how we go forward to ensure Manbij remains within our control because of its strategic importance."

Tillerson emphasized that the two sides share the goal of a stable, unified Syria and will work closely and swiftly on "the issues that are causing difficulties for us, and we're going to resolve them."

He said the working group on Manbij will begin work no later than mid-March.

Cavasoglu said other working groups would tackle the question of the YPG and of Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric who lives in Pennsylvania and who Erdogan's government accuses of plotting a coup.

Even amid the effort to mend fences, Tillerson took time to call out Turkey on issues of concern. Asked about Turkey's plans to buy a Russian air defense system that would fall under US sanctions, Tillerson said his team had explained the ramifications to Turkey and that the purchase will "be given very careful scrutiny."

He also touched on Erdogan's increasing clamp-down on democracy, tying progress on that front to better ties between Ankara and Washington.

"We have long supported and will continue to support Turkish democracy," Tillerson said in the news conference. "Respect for the rule of law, judicial independence and an open press are a source of strength and stability. When Turkey maintains its commitment to these principles, it expands our potential partnership."

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