CIA Director Mike Pompeo will make his first trip overseas to Turkey, Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Donald Trump agreed in a 45-minute phone call Tuesday evening.
The two leaders dedicated most of the conversation to the fight against the Islamic State in Syria. According to the White House, the two heads of state discussed “the close, long-standing relationship between the United States and Turkey and their shared commitment to combating terrorism in all its forms.” The U.S. statement added that President Trump lent America’s support to Turkey in the region.
Sources speaking to Turkish outlets say the two did not only discuss the fight against the Islamic State but Turkey’s opposition to the Syrian Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), a longtime U.S. ally on the ground in Syria, being a part of anti-ISIS initiatives. “Erdogan also highlighted the importance of countering the PKK and stressed that U.S. should not support the PYD/YPG,” a source told the Turkish state outlet Anadolu Agency.
Anadolu adds that the source confirmed that Erdogan also demanded Trump support the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic cleric currently living in Pennsylvania whom Erdogan claims is the head of a terrorist organization and organized a failed coup plot against him.
These details align with a report in Reuters, also citing anonymous sources. The two presidents, Reuters reports, “agreed in a phone call overnight to act jointly against Islamic State in the Syrian towns of al-Bab and Raqqa.” Trump agreed to send Pompeo to Ankara to discuss “the YPG, and battling the network of U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen.”
Ibrahim Kalin, an Erdogan spokesman, provided more details to local outlets. “We envision the establishment of the Azaz-Jarablus-al-Bab line as a safe zone,” Kalin said, adding that Pompeo’s trip would not be limited to a stop in Turkey, but include meetings with regional allies. Pompeo is expected to arrive in Ankara on Thursday.
Al-Bab, Syria, remains one of the three largest Islamic State strongholds in the region, the others being the terrorist group’s two regional “capitals”: Raqqa, Syria, and Mosul, Iraq. Kalin told reporters Wednesday that Turkish soldiers had entered the “center of al-Bab” and were currently engaged in urban warfare with ISIS terrorists. While Turkish troops there are cooperating with anti-government forces to eradicate the Islamic State from the area, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has not vocally objected to Turkey’s presence in that city.
Unlike his predecessor Barack Obama, President Trump has repeatedly affirmed his support for creating safe zones in Syria, which would keep internally displaced people in Syria and reduce refugee flows to the West. As Turkey borders Syria, it has borne the brunt of refugees flows west. According to the United Nations’s refugee agency, Turkey is currently home to nearly three million Syrian refugees. Erdogan has argued for years for the establishment of a safe zone in the country.
Whether Erdogan will be as successful convincing the Trump White House to extradite Fethullah Gulen as he has been garnering support for a safe zone remains to be seen. While Kalin described Trump as “positive” on entertaining the notion, Erdogan has largely failed to produce public evidence linking Gulen to the July 15 coup attempt. While stating in August that the Obama administration had “no excuse” not to extradite the cleric, the Turkish government ultimately admitted it had never sent the United States any evidence linking Gulen to coup plotters.
Trump’s National Security Adviser Michael Flynn publicly called for Washington to extradite Gulen before assuming his position in the administration.
Erdogan has both defended and criticized President Trump since the latter began his campaign for the presidency. Last year, Erdogan notably objected to Trump’s call for limiting refugee flows from terror-prone Muslim-majority countries. “I don’t think that this is remotely possible,” Erdogan said in September, “because politics is a marathon, and it’s a long process.”
Erdogan has since criticized leftist agitators who have refused to accept Trump’s victory in the November election. “In America they started calling Trump a dictator… I thought you were democrats? Why aren’t you respecting the results of the ballot box?” Erdogan said in response to riots against Trump.