Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing on May 15, 2017. (AFP/Getty Images)
President Trump will meet his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, at the White House on Tuesday, hoping to forge friendlier ties between Washington and Ankara after the tense Obama years.
The two leaders are unlikely to find common ground, however, on the two issues most important to Turkey: the U.S. decision to arm Syrian Kurds, and its refusal to extradite a controversial Turkish cleric from Pennsylvania.
The Trump administration, in turn, wants to ensure that Turkey, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, continues to cooperate on counter-terrorism operations, including intercepting foreign fighters coming to or from the war in Syria.
Erdogan was reported to be furious at Trump’s decision last week to supply weapons to Kurdish militias known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, that have taken a lead role in fighting Islamic State militants in Syria.
The Pentagon sees the YPG as a key part of plans to recapture Raqqah, the militants’ self-declared capital in Syria. Turkey views the militia as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, a separatist group that both Washington and Turkey consider a terrorist organization.
Erdogan hopes to change Trump’s mind about arming the Kurdish group, he has said, but the president’s advisors say he is unlikely to budge.
Defense Secretary James N. Mattis and other officials have said they will try to reassure Erdogan that the Pentagon can arm one Kurdish group while helping Ankara fight the other Kurdish group. It’s a tough sell.
“With all of those assurances, the Turks don’t trust the United States at all on this issue or on too many other issues,” said Steven Cook, a Middle East expert at the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations think tank in Washington. “So I think there is going to be significant tension between the two governments over that.”
Erdogan’s government is also demanding that the U.S. government extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric and political refugee who has lived in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since the 1990s.
Gulen runs an international Islamic social and education network that Erdogan blames for an attempted military coup last summer. His government has jailed or fired thousands of military officers, police, journalists, teachers and others since then.
Turkish authorities have sent documents to the Justice Department that they say provide evidence of Gulen’s involvement, and recently sent a delegation to Washington to press for extradition. Gulen has denied any role in the coup attempt.
Despite the differences, Trump and Erdogan are eyeing potential gains from their first meeting.
Trump is eager to show he can improve international ties that soured under President Obama, although largely because Obama also considered arming the YPG — but didn’t in the end.
The Obama administration also was critical of Turkey’s mass arrests and crackdown on civil groups after the coup attempt.
Trump, however, called Erdogan to offer congratulations in April after the Turkish leader narrowly won a national referendum that gave him sweeping new powers.
Erdogan, in turn, has said he hopes for improved relations with Washington under Trump.
Erdogan “wants people in Washington, where the Turks believe they’re getting [an] unfair hearing, to believe that he can be a constructive ally,” Cook said.
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