WASHINGTON – U.S. President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lauded the relationship between their countries Tuesday, amid tensions over a U.S. plan to arm a Syrian Kurdish group for the fight against ISIS and the extradition of a Turkish cleric living in Pennsylvania whom Erdogan blames for orchestrating a July coup attempt against him.
“We’ve had a great relationship and we will make it even better,” Trump said in a joint appearance with Erdogan. He later added: “The relationship that we have together will be unbeatable.”
Erdogan, according to a simultaneous translation of his remarks, predicted the visit “will mark a historical turn of tide” for the relationship, at times fraught under the previous administration, and said that it is one “erected upon common democratic values and common interests.”
Last month the Turkish people narrowly passed a disputed referendum to approve constitutional amendments giving the Turkish presidency, once a mostly ceremonial position, much greater power in the government. Trump congratulated Erdogan on the vote. Trump has not publicly pressured Erdogan on human rights abuses, including a crackdown against the press and strict detention policies.
At the top of his remarks Tuesday, Erdogan said: “Mr. President, my dear friend, distinguished members of the press, at the outset I’d like to wholeheartedly salute you all.” Turkey in 2016, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, had the highest number of imprisoned journalists globally.
Trump acknowledged Turkish concerns about the PKK, or the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a group both the U.S. and Turkey regard as a terrorist organization having fought an insurgency in southeastern Turkey since 1984. Trump, however, made no mention of the YPG, or People’s Protection Units, and gave no sign that the U.S. intends to change course from a plan to arm the group for the assault on the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, Syria.
Erdogan indicated that Turkey may continue to fight the YPG, whom it considers a terrorist organization linked to the PKK and whom the U.S. considers among the most effective forces combating ISIS in Syria. Erdogan stopped short of directly criticizing a U.S. decision to arm them.
“We are committed to fighting all forms of terrorism, without any discrimination whatsoever, that impose a clear and a present threat upon our future,” Erdogan said. “There is no place for the terrorist organizations in the future of our region. Taking YPG and PYD in the region – taking them into consideration in the region, it will never be accepted, and it is going to be against a global agreement that we have reached.”
The PYD is the political arm of the YPG in the region.
Erdogan said he frankly communicated his expectations for the U.S. to arrest and extradite Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen. Erdogan blames Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania, and his supporters for the failed July coup attempt. Gulen has repeatedly denied involvement, and did so again in a Tuesday Washington Post op-ed.
Trump and Erdogan, both leaders of NATO member-states, promised to continue to work together in the fight against ISIS and toward resolving the Syrian civil war.