- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 16, 2017

President Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pledged Tuesday to step up their cooperation in the fight against terrorism in the Middle East, but the Turkish leader warned that his country will “never accept” Syrian Kurdish fighters that the U.S. is arming to help defeat the Islamic State in Syria.

Despite recent tensions between Washington and Ankara, Mr. Erdogan hailed what he said were “outstanding” relations with the U.S., and stopped short of criticizing the Trump administration for its decision last week to arm the Syrian Kurds. Turkey charges the Syrian Kurds are closely linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish separatist movement inside Turkey that the U.S., the European Union and Turkey all consider a terrorist movement.

Mr. Erdogan even had flattering words for Mr. Trump in their first meeting, praising him for his “legendary victory” in the election last November.

Mr. Trump mouthed the words “thank you” as the Turkish leader was speaking.

“We’ve had a great relationship, and we will make it even better,” Mr. Trump said during their joint appearance. “The relationship that we have together will be unbeatable.”

Mr. Erdogan said through a translator that his visit would “mark a historical turn of tide.”

“There is no place for the terrorist organizations in the future of our region,” Mr. Erdogan said. He added that the activities of the Syrian Kurdish military and political operations “will never be accepted.”

Mr. Trump said the Turkish people “have faced horrible terrorist attacks in recent years” and that the U.S. will work with Turkey to make sure that terrorist groups have “no safe quarter.”

“We also support any effort that can be used to reduce the violence in Syria and create the conditions for a peaceful resolution,” Mr. Trump said.

Turkey is a crucial partner in the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State. But the administration’s support of the Kurds in Syria has increased tensions because the PKK has waged an insurgency in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast for three decades.

U.S. officials on May 9 disclosed Mr. Trump’s approval of plans to supply the YPG, the Syrian Kurdish militia, as it advances toward the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa in Syria.

Turkey has been a crucial partner in the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State forces, providing the coalition with access to Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base to wage strikes against the militants.

Mr. Erdogan had pledged to use the White House meeting to try to get Mr. Trump to change course on the YPG. The YPG, or People’s Protection Units, effectively serves as the military of the autonomous Kurdish-led regions that emerged in northern Syria with the retreat of state authority in 2011 that accompanied the outbreak of civil war. The U.S. sees the YPG as distinct from the PKK and a valuable partner in the fight against Islamic State.

Mr. Trump in his public remarks made no reference to concerns by human rights and democracy activists about Mr. Erdogan’s recent political moves, which critics say is a bid to consolidate power and stifle opposition voices in the wake of a failed military coup last summer. Mr. Erdogan pushed through a referendum to change the constitution to centralize more power in the president’s office.

The visit was further complicated by Turkey’s calls for the U.S. to extradite Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen. Mr. Erdogan has cracked down on Gulen supporters in the military, civil service and the media, accusing them of engineering last July’s coup. Mr. Gulen is living in exile in Pennsylvania, and U.S. officials have said that so far they lack the evidence to extradite him.

Mr. Gulen, in an op-ed Tuesday in The Washington Post, denied any role in the coup and said the U.S. and NATO should pressure Turkey to reverse what he said was Mr. Erdogan’s continuing power grab.

“I probably will not live to see Turkey become an exemplary democracy, but I pray the downward authoritarian drift can be stopped before it is too late,” the 76-year-old Mr. Gulen wrote.

The White House said after the meeting that Mr. Trump has also “raised the incarceration of Pastor Andrew Brunson and asked that the Turkish government expeditiously return him to the United States.”

The American pastor and his family say he’s being held on false charges of providing support to a terror group after he and his wife were detained by authorities in the Turkish town of Izmir, where he has carried out his ministry for two decades.

— This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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