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Turkish Leader Visits Trump Looking For 'New Beginning' With U.S. Despite Obstacles

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends a summit in Beijing on Monday. He'll travel to Washington on Tuesday to meet with President Trump and discuss strategy for the fight against terrorism in Syria, which has divided the two countries.
Lintao Zhang

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is visiting the White House on Tuesday, looking for a "new beginning" to U.S.-Turkey relations, even as the two countries clash over the Trump administration's decision to arm Kurdish forces in Syria.

U.S. military officials view the Kurds there as key in the fight against ISIS, but the Turkish government argues they're terrorists.

Erdogan criticized the move before leaving Turkey, but in a more measured tone than his administration took last week when the news originally came out. He also seemed to frame it as a remnant left from the Obama administration.

"Right now there are certain moves in the United States coming from the past, such as the weapons assistance to the YPG," Erdogan told reporters at Ankara Airport on Friday, according to Reuters.

The YPG is the name of the Kurdish militia in Syria. Military officials say the group's fighters are among the best in Syria, and are critical in the fight to retake the Islamic State capital city of Raqqa.

Turkey, however, sees them as terrorists, because of their ties to Kurdish fighters in southern Turkey who have been waging an insurgency to carve out their own independent state for years.

The Turkish government fears that arms the U.S. supplies to the Kurds in Syria will end up across the border.

"We have suggested other solutions," Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said last week. "I hope that during the meeting of our president... with President Donald Trump this issue will be changed to a positive trajectory."

It seems unlikely that President Trump would change his mind on the issue after a face-to-face meeting, considering the decision to arm the Kurds was calculated over many months. Defense officials specifically waited to announce it until after a referendum that enabled Erdogan to consolidate authority in his country, so he would feel more secure in his power.

Whereas many Western policymakers saw that referendum as a step back for Turkish democracy, and therefore, America's ability to work with the country, Trump took the opportunity to congratulate Erdogan on the victory by phone.

Tuesday's meeting, and that call, continue a trend of Trump's: showing no ill-will toward world leaders with questionable human rights records. Erdogan jailed more than 47,000 people after last year's failed coup in Turkey, and he has also cracked down on independent media, jailing more than 150 journalists according to Human Rights Watch.

Since his inauguration, Trump has also hosted Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, and invited Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte to the White House.

Trump and Erdogan will also probably discuss Turkey's demand for the extradition of Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen. Erdogan blames last year's coup attempt on Gulen, who has been living in Pennsylvania since 1999.

"That's a charge Gulen denies," NPR's Michele Kelemen told All Things Considered on Sunday. "It's still up to the Justice Department. There's a legal process here that has to be followed. The U.S. would have to make sure that he would get a fair trial back in Turkey."

The White House did not respond to an NPR request for comment on Gulen's status.

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Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers election interference and voting infrastructure and reports on breaking news.
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