May 16, 2017 / 4:10 PM / 2 months ago

U.S., Turkish leaders put best face on ties amid tensions

4 Min Read

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan told U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday his country would not accept Syrian Kurdish fighters in the region but stopped short of directly criticizing a U.S. decision to arm them.

At a White House meeting, Trump lauded Erdogan as an important ally in the "fight against terrorism" and did not mention Erdogan's domestic crackdown after last year's failed coup attempt.

"We've had a great relationship and we will make it even better," Trump said in their joint appearance.

Erdogan said his visit would "mark a historical turn of tide" and hailed "outstanding relations" between the nations.

It was an especially positive tone considering the tensions over Washington's decision to arm the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia that Ankara regards as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Fighting erupted among protesters outside the Turkish ambassador's residence, resulting in multiple injuries and two arrests - one for aggravated assault and one for assault on a police officer, a city police spokesman said.

The spokesman, officer Hugh Carew, said the origin of the melee was still under investigation. A local NBC television affiliate reported Erdogan was inside the building at the time.

The city fire department reported nine wounded were taken to a local hospital.

U.S. officials on May 9 disclosed Trump's approval of plans to supply the YPG as it advances toward the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa in Syria.

Turkey has been a partner in the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State forces. The U.S. alliance with Turkey has proven pivotal in the battle against Islamic State in Syria, providing the coalition with access to Turkey's Incirlik air base to wage strikes against the militants.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and U.S President Donald Trump deliver statements to reporters in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, U.S. May 16, 2017.Kevin Lamarque

Erdogan had pledged to use the White House meeting to try to get Trump to change course on the YPG. Ankara regards the YPG as an extension of the PKK, which has fought an insurgency in southeastern Turkey since 1984 and is considered a terrorist group by the United States, Turkey and Europe.

"We support Turkey in the ... fight against terror and terror groups like ISIS and the PKK, and ensure they have no safe quarter, the terror groups," Trump said, using an acronym for Islamic State. "We also appreciate Turkey's leadership in seeking an end to the horrific killing in Syria."

The YPG, or People's Protection Units, effectively serves as the military of the autonomous Kurdish-led regions that emerged in northern Syria with the retreat of state authority in 2011 that accompanied the outbreak of civil war.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, accompanied by his wife Emine Erdogan, disembarks from a plane upon his arrival in Washington, U.S. May 15, 2017. Kayhan Ozer/Presidential Palace/Handout via REUTERS

The United States sees the YPG as distinct from the PKK and as a valuable partner in the fight against Islamic State.

The administration of Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama, had criticized Erdogan's crackdown on the Turkish press and academia after the failed coup in July 2016.

Tens of thousands of Turkish citizens have since been detained and some Erdogan supporters sought to blame the United States for the coup attempt.

On Tuesday, Trump made no mention of Erdogan's record on dissent and free speech.

Erdogan's visit was further complicated by Turkey's calls for the United States to extradite Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who has lived in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. Erdogan blames Gulen supporters for the attempted coup. Gulen has denied involvement.

Erdogan's spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, said in a statement the two leaders discussed "possible steps against FETO," referring to what Ankara calls the "Gulenist Terror Organization," a term it uses to describe Gulen's network. Kalin did not specify exactly what steps they discussed.

Turkey also has raised concerns about a U.S. criminal case against Reza Zarrab, a dual Turkish-Iranian national, arrested last year and charged with helping Iran process millions of dollar in transactions that violated U.S. sanctions against Tehran.

Reporting by Ayesha Rascoe; Additional reporting by Tulay Karadeniz and Ece Toksabay in Ankara; Editing by Will Dunham and Howard Goller

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