Tillerson will not meet with Turkey’s opposition in Ankara visit this week

© Reuters. FILE PHOTO – Secretary of State Rex Tillerson comments on visa and travel issues.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will not meet members of Turkish opposition groups during a one-day visit to Ankara this week, where talks with President Tayyip Erdogan will focus on the war in Syria, senior US officials said Monday.

Thursday’s visit comes at a politically sensitive time in Turkey, as the country prepares for a referendum on April 16 proposing to change the constitution to give Erdogan new powers.

A senior State Department official said Tillerson will meet with Erdogan and government ministers involved in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria.

“It certainly is something that we are very aware of and that the secretary will be watching out for while he’s there,” a State Department official said in a conference call with reporters, referring to political sensitivities ahead of the referendum.

US officials hope that Erdogan and others will raise the case of US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom the government accuses of orchestrating a failed coup last July.

The focus of the Ankara talks is the US-led offensive to recapture Raqqa from the Islamic State and stabilize areas from which militants have been driven out, allowing refugees to return home, authorities said.

A major sticking point between the United States and Turkey is the United States ‘backing for the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which Turkey considers part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party that has been fighting an insurgency for three decades in Turkey.

But the United States has long viewed Kurdish fighters as the key to retaking Raqqa alongside Arab fighters in the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

“We are well aware of Turkey’s concerns and it is something that will continue to be a topic of conversation,” said a second US official.

Turkey, Russia and Iran have held Syrian peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, on a ceasefire in Syria. The United States has proposed “areas of stability” where the Islamic State has been driven out and refugees can return.

Six years after the start of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, he is winning on the battlefield, although the war is far from over. The once stable country is divided into fiefdoms ruled by rebels and caudillos.

“We look forward to discussing with Turkey how we can strengthen the ceasefire negotiations through the Astana process,” the second US official said.

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