JOHN YANG: President Trump welcomed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the White House today, amid heightened tensions for the longtime and now troubled allies.
Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner begins our coverage.
MARGARET WARNER: Despite tensions between Washington and Ankara, it was best foot forward from both leaders at the White House this afternoon, at least in public.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I look forward to working together with President Erdogan on achieving peace and security in the Middle East.
PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN, Turkey (through interpreter): President Trump’s recent election victory has led to the awakening of a new set of aspirations and expectations and hopes in our region.
MARGARET WARNER: But relations between the two NATO allies have deteriorated sharply. Former President Obama grew critical of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian ways. President Trump came to office calling for improved ties, but tensions flared again.
The rawest point of contention, America’s battlefield partnership with the Syrian Kurdish militia known as the YPG. It’s the most effective ground force fighting ISIS. Ankara objects, arguing the YPG is linked to Turkey’s Kurdish terror group the PKK.
But the U.S. announced last week it will furnish the YPG with heavier weapons.
Defense Secretary James Mattis sought to soften the blow to Ankara.
JAMES MATTIS, U.S. Secretary of Defense: We are very open to discussions about options, and we will work together, and we will work out any of the concerns. I am not concerned at all about the NATO alliance and the relations between our nations.
MARGARET WARNER: Today, Mr. Trump cited the PKK, alongside ISIS, as a regional terror group, but he didn’t mention the YPG. Erdogan said neither group deserves a future in the region.
PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN (through interpreter): Taking the YPG and its allies in the region into consideration will never be accepted, and it is going to be against a global agreement that we have reached.
MARGARET WARNER: Last month, Turkey conducted cross-border airstrikes against the YPG, killing more than 20.
Internally, Washington is dismayed by Erdogan’s crackdown on domestic dissent, especially since last year’s abortive coup. Some 47,000 people have been arrested, and another 100,000 fired from government posts. Ankara accuses self-exiled Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen of orchestrating the coup attempt and is furious that the U.S. hasn’t extradited him.
All this follows a referendum last month greatly expanding Erdogan’s powers. The result sparked widespread protests. European monitors criticized it as below international standards.
Mr. Trump telephoned Erdogan to congratulate him, however, something no other Western leader did.
For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Margaret Warner.
JOHN YANG: And now Jeffrey Brown takes it from there.
JEFFREY BROWN: So, what is likely to come of the Trump-Erdogan meeting? And how serious are the tensions between the two allies?
To help us answer those questions, we turn to Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is the author of “The New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey.” And Ali Cinar, president of the Turkish Heritage Organization, who’s just come from a meeting with President Erdogan.
So, let me start with you, Ali Cinar.
Let’s get right to that question of the main dispute, the U.S. decision to arm a Kurdish militia fighting in Syria. How much anger did that provoke in Turkey?
ALI CINAR, President, Turkish Heritage Organization: Well, it was — it was a really bad perception from the Turkey side, because, since the terror attacks increase in Turkey, the Turkish people got upset with United States, since U.S. support PYG.
So, the meeting today between President Trump and Erdogan mainly focused on the PYG issue and extradition of Fethullah Gulen. So, there were two important, major issues that they discussed noontime.
JEFFREY BROWN: And, Soner Cagaptay, what did President Erdogan want from this meeting? And do we know what he got?
SONER CAGAPTAY, The Washington Institute: I think he got half of what he wanted already, which was to be invited to Washington. He just won a contested referendum that has made him executive-style president.
As I highlight in my latest book, “The New Sultan,” Turkey is a very divided country, largely as a result of Erdogan’s political trajectory. Half of the country loves him, and the other half hates him.
For the half that loathes him, they didn’t see the referendum as free and fair. And Erdogan was aching to get a Western leader to invite him, so he could affirm his victory as he saw it. So, by the mere fact that he was invited to the White House, he got more than half he wanted.
On top of it, I think, today, he wanted to see some concessions regarding the Kurdish issue and the U.S. policy on the Kurdish issue, and he may have gotten that as well.
I think that the deal President Trump offered to Turkish President Erdogan is that the United States will look — wants Turkey to look the other way as Washington arms the Syrian Kurds to take Raqqa from ISIS. In return, Washington is willing to look the other way as Turkey fights the Syrian Kurds’ ally PKK In Iraq and elsewhere where it has strongholds.
JEFFREY BROWN: Ali Cinar, do you see him, the president, Erdogan, having gotten anything out of this meeting, because the U.S. has stood by its decision to arm the Kurds?
ALI CINAR: Right.
I mean, I don’t think you will see in the short term — but what President Trump said, also, we are going to also let some Turkish government use some war — I mean, guns to Turkish government, meaning that Trump said, we are going to arm Turkey, too. It was an interesting statement.
And, also, it seems like United States is going to use PYG on the Raqqa operation, but for the other ground operations, there might be a collaboration between Turkey and United States. So, it’s difficult to see right now, but, in the long term, you might see a better cooperation between the two countries.
JEFFREY BROWN: What about, staying with you, Ali Cinar, on the question of Fethullah Gulen? There, too, Turkey seems to have been rebuffed.
ALI CINAR: Yes.
I mean, the problem is, right now, the U.S. side says, OK, Turkey needs to respect our legal system and process. But now Erdogan is insisting that that was a treaty agreement, extradition agreement between Turkey and the United States signed in 1979.
And at least Turkey is asking to detain Fethullah Gulen, and the U.S. side is not doing it right now. So I don’t we will see a solution on this. But Turkey continues to insist on Fethullah Gulen.
JEFFREY BROWN: Soner Cagaptay, you mentioned the human rights issues earlier. I think that they didn’t come up, at least publicly. Did that surprise you? Should it have come up?
SONER CAGAPTAY: Probably not, because Turkey is a large country, and the Turks don’t like to be lectured, especially by outsiders.
I think, if it came up, I would have preferred that it came out in private meetings. This is an important issue. And it’s not about selling American values. President Erdogan in Turkey has won elections on a platform of economic good governance, but also demonizing groups that do not vote for him, ranging from leftists to liberals to Kurds.
At a result, the very is very deeply polarized country, as I write in my book “The New Sultan.” But, at the same time, this very deeply polarized country is now in a state of crisis, where half believe that they live in heaven, and the other half believe that they live in hell. That is not sustainable.
Turkey is a key ally for the United States because it borders Iran, Iraq, Syria, ISIS, and Russia across the Black Sea. Whatever U.S. policies are regarding those countries or entities, they’re much easier with Turkey. But they’re easier with Turkey, which is a stable country, not a country which is in crisis.
Erdogan’s trajectory has put Turkey into a crisis. And I think that the human rights issues are not about selling American values. They’re about making sure that Turkey remains a stable place. And the only way for that is, of course, for President Erdogan to depolarize Turkey’s landscape, as well as to become a unifier, after having won the referendum.
I wish and hope that that came up in the conversation.
JEFFREY BROWN: So, Ali Cinar, finally, to the extent that today was — a big part of today was about trying to mend fences in what has been a very tense time, where do things go from here?
ALI CINAR: I mean, they are going to meet also in Europe for the NATO summit, and this talk will continue for their next meeting.
But what I see is right now fighting against ISIS are the most important common strategy for both countries. And, hopefully, the Turkish army and the Pentagon can closely work together, and then move forward. Otherwise, it will be a disaster, if they don’t coordinate in the region, since Turkey is still upset on the U.S. support to PYG.
So, hopefully, the dialogue will continue between the two countries. That’s my hope.
JEFFREY BROWN: Ali Cinar, Soner Cagaptay, thank you both very much.
SONER CAGAPTAY: Thank you.
ALI CINAR: Thank you.