Erdogan to Discuss Syrian Kurds, Gulen Extradition in Talks with Trump

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to the press after meeting with Hungarian Prime minister Viktor Orbán for discussions on Syria and migration on November 7, 2019 in Budapest, Hungary. (Photo by Laszlo Balogh/Getty Images)
Laszlo Balogh/Getty Images

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday that when he meets with U.S. President Donald Trump this week, his agenda will include Turkey’s relationship with Russia, complaints about Syrian Kurdish militia forces remaining in the “safe area” Turkey wants to carve out near its border, and Turkey’s long-stalled extradition request for exiled cleric and Erdogan arch-enemy Fethullah Gulen.

“We are in agreement with Trump to solve problems and develop our ties despite the foggy weather in our relations,” Erdogan said from the airport in Ankara as he prepared to depart for Washington.

Erdogan did not directly mention U.S. displeasure over Turkey’s purchase of advanced S-400 surface-to-air missiles from Russia and the subsequent U.S. decision to eject Turkey from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, but Erdogan’s office indicated the matter would be at the top of the agenda during a “critical” meeting with Trump on Wednesday.

According to Erdogan’s communications chief Fahrettin Altun, Erdogan will offer to buy Patriot missiles from the United States to smooth things over, but will not relent on his decision to also purchase S-400 systems from Russia, which he believes are vital to Turkish national security. Turkey did, however, announce a delay in receiving its second round of S-400 missiles until next year, ostensibly due to a dispute with the Russians over joint production.

The Turks insist there should be no problems with them buying both missile systems and also acquiring F-35 fighters, while U.S. defense officials note the S-400 is intended to shoot down the F-35, so it would be unwise to give Russian missile technicians a close look at the advanced American warplanes.

The Pentagon restated as recently as the end of October that Turkey will not be able to take delivery of F-35 fighters if it completes the installation of S-400 batteries, which could be operational as soon as the beginning of next year. Left unresolved is how Turkey’s elimination from the F-35 program could affect purchases by other Gulf states, several of which are eager to acquire the advanced planes.

“I’m confident Erdogan and Trump will have an honest discussion on this. I believe the two leaders can find a solution that’s acceptable and can be implemented,” Altun said optimistically.

As he departed for Washington, Erdogan complained that “neither Russia nor the United States” has been able to clear “terrorist organizations” from northeastern Syria as they promised. By “terrorist organizations” he meant the Syrian YPG militia, which Turkey regards as a wing of the PKK separatist organization within its own borders.

Erdogan said he intended to raise the issue of Kurdish forces remaining near the Turkey-Syria border with President Trump in Washington, and then with Russian President Vladimir Putin in a telephone call after he returns home.

Erdogan added that he will present President Trump with evidence that Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) leader Mazloum Kobani should not be granted a visa to visit Washington for a possible meeting with Trump because Kobani has been “involved in terrorist acts.”

Some U.S. officials have been working to arrange a meeting between Trump and Kobani, while Trump himself has suggested Erdogan should meet directly with Kobani to work out their differences. Erdogan notoriously rejected this suggestion by throwing the letter containing it into a trash can.

Erdogan said on Tuesday he intends to press Trump on Turkey’s extradition request for 78-year-old Fethullah Gulen, a onetime ally of Erdogan’s who became an ardent critic and left Turkey to take up residence in Pennsylvania. 

Among other allegations, Gulen was accused of masterminding the 2016 coup attempt against Erdogan. An aggressive purge of Gulen’s followers from all branches of Turkish government was conducted after Erdogan survived the coup.

Some of Gulen’s allies say they are “very concerned” that Gulen could become a bargaining chip between Trump and Erdogan, although other observed shrugged off Gulen’s extradition as a routine demand Turkey will never stop making, no matter how often the U.S. says no.

“We know that the U.S.-Turkey relationship is a very valuable one for the U.S. Turkey has very valuable assets and facilitates important operations, and we are very worried about the Erdogan government using this as a leverage to get Erdogan’s political wishes,” Alp Aslandogan of the Alliance for Shared Values said about Gulen’s fate on Tuesday. 

One other major issue likely to be on the table between Trump and Erdogan is the U.S. indictment of Turkey’s Halkbank over allegations of violating Iran sanctions. 

A former Halkbank executive has already served time in prison on the charges of sanctions evasions. The bank itself has thus far refused to respond to a legal summons, accept court papers, or file a plea, although it has angered the U.S. court by asking for a “special appearance” in which it could request dismissal of all charges without ever responding to them. 

“That’s sort of crazy, isn’t it?” U.S. District Judge Richard Berman pithily responded last week when Halkbank’s lawyers laid out their extraordinary conditions for appearing in his court without accepting its jurisdiction.

The Halkbank case is seen as a significant point of tension between the U.S. and Turkey, especially since Erdogan was personally implicated in what key defendants described as a complex scheme to use shell companies, sham transactions, and bribes to evade U.S. sanctions. Erdogan denounced the entire case as a political attack on the Turkish government.

The case grew even stickier when former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, currently serving as President Trump’s lawyer, became involved in efforts to work out a settlement between the U.S. and Turkish governments.

Turkey also supports the regime of dictator Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela and has been accused of helping Maduro launder his money.

Observers in the U.S., Turkey, and Europe see the Trump-Erdogan meeting as a crucial moment in American relations with Turkey, the fate of the Syrian Kurds, the balance of power in the Middle East, and possibly Turkey’s continued membership in NATO.

Few scenarios are envisioned for the meeting in which Erdogan does not come away with some bad ideas about where his interests lie and what he can get away with, from human-rights violations to regional strategic mischief… and if all of Erdogan’s worst demands are rebuffed, the process of losing a valuable but extremely troublesome NATO asset to Russia’s orbit may be completed.

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