Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he and Donald Trump were "laying the foundations of a new era" following their May 16 White House meeting.
However, Erdogan said that Turkey will never accept Washington’s collaboration with the People's Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian Kurdish militia that the US intends to arm in a bid to dislodge Islamic State (IS) militants from their Raqqa “capital” in Syria. Ankara regards the YPG as an insurgent terrorist group.
Trump described his first face to face talks with Erdogan as successful, stating: "We've had a great relationship and we will make it even better."
Erdogan arrived in Washington with a list of complaints. Topping his agenda were US support for YPG and Ankara’s demand for the extradition of Fethullah Gulen - the cleric the Turkish government claims masterminded the failed coup in Turkey in July last year.
Erdogan, who had strained relations with the Barack Obama administration, partly because it too insisted on militarily working with the YPG on the ground in Syria, said his visit to the US would mark a historical turning of the tide. But following the meeting, Trump did not make any comments that suggested he is willing to change his stance on arming the YPG, which his defence chiefs see as the best fighting force available to ally with in Syria.
Nevertheless, there is no indication Ankara and Washington are, overall, on a collision course. Both Erdogan and Trump put on brave faces when it came to the unresolved differences between the two Nato allies.
Ahead of a 20-minute one-on-one talk between the two leaders at the White House, Trump told reporters that: “We are going to have long and hard discussions…We've had a great relationship and we will make it even better.”
Before the meeting, rights activists and opponents of Erdogan urged Trump to raise the issue of human rights and democracy, RFE-RL reported on May 16.
"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."
In contrast to EU leaders, Trump immediately congratulated Erdogan after the controversial April 16 referendum which the Turkish president officially narrowly won to give him the right to establish an executive presidency and, for instance, abolish the prime ministry. In contrast, the US State Department urged Erdogan's government to "protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of all its citizens" regardless of how they voted. Massive purges against anyone suspected of links to the Gulenists have been conducted since the coup was put down.
Prior to the meeting, in an opinion piece published by The Washington Post, Gulen hit out at Erdogan, denying any involvement in the failed coup and appealing to the West to "help Turkey return to the democratic path".
Following the brief closed-door meeting at the White House, Trump and Erdogan appeared before the press. They struck a rather optimistic tone about relations between the two allies despite their disagreements over the YPG and Ankara’s request for the handing over of Gulen, which Washington is yet to respond positively to.
The overall presentation of the press conference stressed the importance of the strategic alliance between Turkey and the US. “The relationship that we have together will be unbeatable,” Trump said. He praised historic contributions made by Turkey during the Cold War.
Trump added that “the US supports Turkey in the first fight against terror and terror groups like ISIS and the PKK [the Kurdistan Workers’ Party which the YPG is linked to], and ensure they have no safe quarter, the terror groups.”
Ankara deems the YPG as a threat to its national security because of its link to the PKK which launched an insurgency against the Turkish state in 1984.
At the joint press conference, Erdogan stopped short of directly criticising the US for its decision to arm the YPG, but his speech contained a warning that “there is no place for the terrorist organisations in the future of our region. Taking the YPG into consideration in the region, it will never be accepted, and it is going to be against a global agreement that we have reached”.
Erdogan added that Turkey will never allow those groups “to manipulate the religious structure and the ethnic structure of the region making terrorism as a pretext or an excuse.”
Reiterating Ankara’s demand for the extradition of Gulen, Erdogan said. “I have been frankly communicating our expectations with regard to the Fethullahist Terrorist Organisation (FETO), [and] we have notified our friends of their involvement in the failed coup.”
The Ankara government uses the term FETO to describe the Gulenist network which it says infiltrated the country’s military, judiciary, police force and other key institutions prior to the coup.
Trump chose not to comment on Gulen who has been living in the US since 1999.
Following the press call, delegations from the two countries, headed by Erdogan and Trump, met for further discussions.
According to Erdogan's spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, the delegations discussed cooperation in the fields of trade and defence as well as the fight against the PKK and ISIS. The spokesman also noted that “possible steps against FETO” were also discussed. But he did not elaborate.