Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım told reporters in Munich Sunday that he is optimistic about cooperating with the United States to eradicate the Islamic State from Syria and that Turkey is expecting to work with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to liberate Raqqa, the Islamic State “capital.” This announcement followed a conversation with Vice President Mike Pence.
Yıldırım and Pence are both in Munich for a security conference. The NATO member countries had seen their relationship strain following repeated calls from Ankara for Washington to extradite Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claims orchestrated a failed coup attempt against him. Turkey also opposes cooperation between the United States and the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), among the most successful anti-ISIS militias on the group in Syria.
“We are opening a new page with the U.S. administration; they call it ‘new day,’” Yıldırım told reporters. He did not claim that Pence promised a shift in relations between Washington and the Syrian Kurds but instead said America was “in an evaluation process” regarding the best way to move forward against the Islamic State. Yıldırım added he “did not get an impression” that the Trump administration would force Turkey to fight alongside the YPG.
“It is not correct to use a terror group to fight another terror group,” Yıldırım argued, according to Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency. “So the job should be done worthily of a strategic partnership, a NATO alliance. I think they will take this sensitivity into consideration.”
The Free Syrian Army was once President Barack Obama’s preferred ally in the Syrian civil war. The FSA has been devastated by defections of fighters, some trained by the United States, to terrorist groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.
In addition to fighting against Islamist groups in Syria, the YPG supports creating an independent Kurdistan, which would consist of Syrian and Turkish land. Ankara strongly opposes the creation of such a state and claims the YPG is indistinguishable from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Marxist, U.S.-designated terrorist organization.
As for Gulen – who runs a network of charter schools from his home in Pennsylvania – Yıldırım said he was satisfied that the Trump administration “took the issue seriously” but made no promises as to whether they would extradite him for trial over the 2016 failed coup. While demanding his extradition last summer, the Turkish government admitted it had not sent the United States any evidence linking Gulen to coup plotting.
In his first conversation with Yıldırım earlier this month, Pence had referred to the bilateral relationship as entering a “new day” with Trump in office. That language appears not to be limited to ties to Turkey. Following his in-person meeting with President Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the president for referring to their new cooperative relationship as a “new day.” Following the meeting, Netanyahu told reporters, “I must tell you that there is a new day here and it is a good day.”
Trump has worked to ensure Turkey that he ascribes particular importance to Washington’s relationship with Ankara. Following a phone conversation with Erdogan, Trump sent CIA chief Mike Pompeo on his first trip abroad to Ankara. Trump reportedly discussed the fight in Syria with Erdogan before sending Pompeo. Turkish troops are currently working with the Free Syrian Army to liberate the town of al-Bab, Syria, from Islamic State elements. As with other meetings with high-level U.S. officials, Turkish leaders demanded Pompeo help them advocate against the YPG and Gulen.
Erdogan has insisted that Turkey will play a central role in the eradication of the Islamic State from Syria and Iraq, despite opposition from the governments of Syria and Iraq. As early as last December, Erdogan insisted that Turkish troops would fight alongside Americans to liberate Raqqa. “No one should tell us why we are doing this, because Turkey is a global power,” he insisted.