Turkey's president has warned the White House against moving forward with a plan to arm Kurdish militia fighters in Syria, even as he told U.S. President Donald Trump he wanted to repair strained relations between the two NATO allies.
In a joint appearance at the White House May 16, both Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Trump struck an optimistic note about their discussions, with Erdogan saying that they were "laying the foundation of a new era."
But Erdogan said that Turkey will never accept U.S. collaboration with the People's Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian Kurdish militia battling Islamic State (IS) militants that the White House plans to arm.
Turkey considers the YPG to be a terrorist group linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been fighting a decades-long insurgency in Turkey.
Washington, along with the European Union, also consider PKK to be a terrorist organization.
Trump told reporters that his talks with Erdogan "will be very successful."
"We've had a great relationship and we will make it even better," he said.
The White House meeting came amid intense and complex diplomacy over the war in Syria, where Turkey and the United States both support forces in opposition to President Bashar al-Assad's government.
New Round Of Talks
A new round of Syria peace talks opened in Geneva on May 16, but hopes for a major breakthrough remain dim.
Five previous rounds of UN-backed negotiations aimed at ending a six-year conflict that has killed more than 320,000 people have failed to yield concrete results.
Trump's meeting with Erdogan also comes after Russia, Iran, and Turkey agreed at separate talks in Kazakhstan on a plan to set up four "de-escalation zones" in Syria.
Rebels have criticized the plan and the United States has voiced reservations, citing concerns about Iran's role and pointing to the failure of past agreements whose stated intention was to decrease fighting.
Meanwhile, Erdogan, who pushed through a referendum strengthening his powers last month, also said he would pursue "to the end" Turkey's demand for Gulen's extradition.
The Turkish president blames the U.S.-based cleric's supporters for last year's failed coup, which was followed by a purge of tens of thousands of Turkish state employees accused of links to Gulen's network in a crackdown that has drawn criticism from Washington.
Gulen denies any involvement in the plot.
Ahead of the talks, rights activists and opponents of Erdogan urged Trump to raise the issue of human rights and democracy.
"Turkey is under a state of emergency since [the failed coup], during which human rights have been trampled on," said Sezgin Tanrikulu, a legislator from Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party, or CHP. "The media and press freedoms have been placed under government control. Torture and ill-treatment have increased."
Trump congratulated Erdogan after the referendum, while the State Department urged his government to "protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of all its citizens" regardless of how they voted.
Lobbying For Reza Zarrab
In addition to the extradition of Gulen, Erdogan has also been seeking the release of Reza Zarrab, who is charged with acting as a go-between to help Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and other Tehran clients evade U.S. sanctions.
Court documents made public last month revealed that Zarrab's attorneys, led by former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, met with Erdogan on the case in February and afterwards attempted to initiate Zarrab's release from jail through a diplomatic process. Erdogan has since openly called for Zarrab's release.
Giuliani's law firm is registered as a foreign agent for Turkey. A former prosecutor who advised Trump during his campaign, Giuliani appeared on a list of potential nominees for FBI director this week after Trump fired James Comey.
Guiliani's ties with both Trump and Turkey have been under intense scrutiny by the Manhattan judge in the Iran sanctions case, who asked at one point whether Giuliani was working for Erdogan or Zarrab. On May 15, the judge demanded to know more about Giuliani's ties to Trump.
Giuliani has spoken of trying to arrange a "political" settlement of the case between Washington and Ankara, using Zarrab's past associations with Erdogan as a bargaining chip.
In 2013, U.S. prosecutors say Erdogan pressured Turkish prosecutors to drop criminal charges in a high-level bribery case brought against Zarrab. Erdogan's pressure as then-prime minister resulted in the firing of the prosecutors who brought the charges against Zarrab.
U.S. prosecutors say the 2013 charges pertained to a massive bribery scheme executed by Zarrab involving the payment of tens of millions of dollars to cabinet-level Turkish officials and high-level bank officers in Turkey to facilitate Zarrab's transactions on behalf of Iran.
Ahmet S. Yayla, a professor at George Mason University in the United States and a former Turkish prosecutor, wrote in Modern Diplomacythis week that he believes Erdogan knows that "Zarrab is going to testify against him unless Turkey finds a way to save him from prison," Yayla said.
Yayla wrote that he believes Erdogan will use the U.S. lease on the vital Incirlik air base in southern Turkey as leverage to pressure Trump to accede to his demands.
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