ABU DHABI—The U.S. is working to resolve a dispute with Turkey over its withdrawal from Syria, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Saturday, adding that it is continuing to negotiate the transfer of military responsibility and the fate of its Kurdish allies.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has rejected U.S. efforts to establish conditions for withdrawal from Syria, challenging the assertions of national security adviser John Bolton. He has rebuffed calls to protect Kurdish fighters Ankara characterizes as terrorists, while the U.S. government is seeking a commitment to protect those who fought alongside American troops against Islamic State.

“We recognize the Turkish people’s right, President Erdogan’s right, to defend their country from terrorists,” Mr. Pompeo said. “And we also know that those who aren’t terrorists, those who were fighting alongside of us for all this time, deserve to be protected as well. We are confident we can achieve an outcome that achieves both of those.”

Mr. Pompeo noted that James Jeffrey, the State Department special envoy for Syria, had traveled to Turkey with Mr. Bolton earlier this month. “He’ll travel back to Ankara, I imagine, before too long,” the secretary said.

His comments come a day after U.S. defense officials said the military had begun moving equipment out of Syria in preparation for the troop withdrawal announced by President Trump in December.

Mr. Pompeo is on a weeklong tour of the Middle East in part to reassure allies worried about the U.S.’s commitment to the region after Mr. Trump’s abrupt Syria announcement.

He told reporters that he spoke with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu about the aim “to protect the Turks from legitimate terror threats, and prevent any substantial risk to folks who don’t present terror risks to Turkey.”

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There are “many details still to be worked out, but I’m optimistic that we can achieve a good outcome,” he said.

The Turkish government has requested substantial U.S. military assistance to support its efforts, raising the prospect that the U.S. role could increase before it decreases.

Asked about the challenge of seeking cooperation from foreign governments on issues such as counterterrorism and blunting Iran’s influence, while opposing domestic human-rights abuses by those governments, Mr. Pompeo cited Turkey as an example of the balance the State Department looks to strike.

The secretary said he had engaged in “a complex set of conversations” with Mr. Cavusoglu that included not only the Syria mission, but also human-rights concerns.

“We talked about lots of elements of the U.S.-Turkish relationship, and part of that conversation was about the fact that we still have three locally employed Americans that are wrongfully detained—one of our NASA folks, Serkan Golge, is still detained there.”

As to the prospect of the Syrian Kurds negotiating with Damascus to secure their fate, Mr. Pompeo cited the “mission set” established by the U.S. in Syria: reducing violence and conducting diplomacy to facilitate a political resolution led by the Syrian people.

“There’s a long history there,” he said. “This long predates the civil war. So we need to be mindful of the histories of these peoples, as well, and respectful of that. And so the political resolution that will be arrived at, if this process is successful, will do that. It will honor those things that the Syrian people demand be honored.”

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The U.S. goal is to bring all stakeholders together to craft a political solution, Mr. Pompeo said.

“It’s been a long process. It’s been slower than we would have wished. We hope we can turn the corner here in the next couple months,” he said.

Write to Courtney McBride at courtney.mcbride@wsj.com

Corrections & Amplifications
Mevlut Cavusoglu’s first name was misspelled as Mehmet in an earlier version of this article. (Jan. 12, 2019)



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