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Trump, Erdogan meet in bid to calm blowback over Kurds

Margaret Talev
Bloomberg News

President Donald Trump’s meeting Tuesday with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is part of a U.S. effort to offset damage to relations between the two countries from the president’s decision to arm Kurdish fighters in Syria.

One administration official described Erdogan’s White House visit as a gift that offers the Turkish leader a gesture of international legitimacy a month after a disputed referendum that critics say Erdogan won by violating international standards for free and fair elections.

Constitutional amendments narrowly approved in the referendum switched the once mostly ceremonial post Erdogan holds into the center of power in the Turkish government. Erdogan accelerated efforts to assert full control over the institutions of state after a failed July 2016 military coup against him. In the months that followed, nearly 150,000 soldiers, judges, academics, journalists and others were detained or lost their jobs in a roundup of suspected sympathizers.

Despite the international criticism of the way the referendum was conducted, Trump called Erdogan afterward to congratulate him on the victory.

Click here for a QuickTake on Turkey’s political power struggle and Erdogan’s crackdown

Trump had worked since his election to improve relations with Erdogan that had grown tense by the end of Barack Obama’s administration, and some of the people who shaped Trump’s presidential campaign had taken on work aligned with the Turkish president’s pet causes. A firm owned by his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, received more than $500,000 during the election campaign, initially undisclosed, for work to help discredit an Erdogan political rival.

But the U.S. campaign to drive Islamic State from its self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa in Syria put Trump in a strategic bind. His administration concluded the best hope short of inserting U.S. troops would be to arm Kurdish fighters and the president decided that was worth the inevitable blowback from Turkey, the official said.

For Erdogan, the White House visit just three days before Trump makes his first trip foreign trip as president to the Middle East will be a chance to test the theory that a one-on-one meeting with Trump can sway his thinking on foreign policy relationships, as Trump’s summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping seemed to do by leveraging the role he could play in North Korea.

Turkey has leverage of its own, not least being the importance of its Incirlik air base, which hosts about 1,500 U.S. troops and is used for air strikes against the Islamic State by the U.S. and its allies. The U.S. also has used Incirlik to supply military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“My guess is the Turks looked at what President Xi said to Trump about North Korea and it kind of moved the president in one direction and he said, ’Oh yeah, it’s more complicated than I thought,’” said Steven A. Cook, an expert on Turkish politics with the Council on Foreign Relations.

Turkey has long worked against any moves that strengthen Kurds in Iraq or Syria because of fears of inciting Kurdish separatists within Turkey. The Turkish government considers the YPG Kurdish militia in Syria that the U.S. plans to arm to be a terrorist group. And it argues weapons provided to the YPG could ultimately make their way the PKK Kurdish separatist group inside Turkey to be used for terrorist attacks there.

Even if Erdogan can’t talk Trump out of his decision on arming the YPG, he may seek to extract other concessions, including U.S. assistance fighting against the PKK, said Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Erdogan may seek a policy of “compartmentalization,” Cagaptay said. Erdogan looks the other way while the U.S. arms YPG in Syria and in return the U.S. allows Turkey to strike PKK bases or headquarters in Kurdish sections of Iraq. The U.S. can also help Turkey by sharing more intelligence and shutting down PKK fundraising networks.

Erdogan would especially like U.S. support for a Turkish military strike against an emerging PKK base on the border between Iraq and Syria, Cagaptay said.

Erdogan is also seeking the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish preacher exiled in Pennsylvania, whom Erdogan considers a terrorist. Turkey didn’t succeed at extradition under the Obama administration and the Trump administration official involved in preparations for Erdogan’s visit said he knew of no U.S. plans to do so now.

Gulen publish an opinion article in the Washington Post Monday evening calling on Trump to use the meeting with Erdogan to pressure him to reverse “the democratic regression in Turkey.”

“The Turkey that I once knew as a hope-inspiring country on its way to consolidating its democracy and a moderate form of secularism has become the dominion of a president who is doing everything he can to amass power and subjugate dissent,” Gulen wrote. “The West must help Turkey return to a democratic path.”

Erdogan also wants the U.S. Justice Department to drop a case against Reza Zarrab, a Turkish businessman arrested in the U.S. last year and accused of working to violate Iran sanctions.

Zarrab’s prosecution had been brought by Preet Bharara, the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, who was fired in March along with other U.S. attorneys named under President Barrack Obama. Zarrab’s defense team includes former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a close ally of Trump.

Members of Trump’s team have come under scrutiny for ties to Erdogan’s government, including Michael Flynn, a campaign adviser who became the president’s first national security adviser. Flynn accepted a $530,000 contract in fall 2016 to advocate on behalf of a Turkish businessman who is a close ally of Erdogan. At the time, Flynn didn’t register with the Justice Department as a foreign agent, as lobbying on behalf of a foreign government would require.

According to documents Flynn later filed with the Justice Department, the contract asked Flynn’s private-sector security company to push for the extradition of Gulen. The job was so tightly aligned with Turkish government interests that Flynn was widely criticized for failing to disclose his entanglements. In March, he retroactively registered as a foreign agent and disclosed the contract to the Justice Department.

Flynn was forced out as National Security Agency director after less than a month on the job, after President Trump said he lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. Flynn also had worked for Russian companies, including some closely linked to the Russian government.