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Trump and Turkey's president hail 'new era' despite sharp disagreements

President Trump and Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, met Tuesday at the White House amid sharp disagreement over the war in Syria but eager to improve relations after the Obama era.

It was Trump’s first face-to-face meeting with the increasingly authoritarian Erdogan, who has consolidated power since a failed military coup last summer. Since then, his government has arrested or fired tens of thousands of political opponents, journalists, judges, academics, teachers and others.

In a joint appearance at the White House, Trump lavished praise on Erdogan — although he repeatedly mispronounced the Turkish leader’s name — as the ruler of a key Muslim ally and one of the largest members of the NATO military alliance.

He said Turkey remains a valuable partner in anti-terrorism operations and helps ensure that Islamic State and other terrorist groups in the region “have no safe quarter.”

Turkey’s security forces play a key role in intercepting foreign fighters moving to or from the war in neighboring Syria and onward to Europe. The nation also hosts a major U.S. air base that is crucial for coalition operations in Iraq and Syria.

Trump did not mention the issues that most deeply divide Washington and Ankara, but Erdogan did in a lengthy statement.

He condemned Trump’s decision to provide weapons to Syrian Kurdish militias whose fighters Turkey considers terrorists, and he restated his nation’s long-standing request to extradite a Turkish cleric living in Pennsylvania whom Erdogan accuses of orchestrating the failed coup.

Erdogan said the Kurdish militias that the Trump administration plans to arm, known as People's Protection Units, or YPG, “will never be accepted” in the region.

The Pentagon sees YPG fighters as especially effective and key to an upcoming ground offensive against Raqqah, Islamic State’s self-declared capital in Syria.

Turkey views the militias as an ally of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, a separatist Turkish group that Washington and Ankara consider a terrorist organization.

Erdogan also reiterated his government’s demand for the extradition of the cleric, Fethullah Gulen, who heads an international Islamic educational and cultural group from a compound in the Pocono Mountains in eastern Pennsylvania.

The Justice Department says it is reviewing the request.

Gulen has repeatedly denied any involvement in the coup, and in an op-ed Tuesday in the Washington Post he warned of the “downward authoritarian drift” under Erdogan.

There was no sign that Trump and Erdogan resolved their differences.

Defense Secretary James N. Mattis and other officials have said they would try to reassure Erdogan that the Pentagon can arm the YPG while helping Ankara fight the PKK. It’s a tough sell.

“With all of those assurances, the Turks don’t trust the United States at all on this issue or on too many other issues,” said Steven Cook, a Middle East expert at the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “So I think there is going to be significant tension between the two governments over that.”

In their public comments, both leaders tried to portray any bad blood as the result of President Obama’s policies.

“I hope and pray that this new administration will bring forth auspicious results for the relations,” Erdogan said through a interpreter.

The Obama administration also had considered arming the YPG but ultimately did not. It did, however, criticize the mass arrests and crackdown on civil groups and the news media after the coup attempt.

By contrast, Trump called Erdogan to offer congratulations in April after he narrowly won a national referendum that gave him sweeping new powers and that some international monitors had questioned. Trump phoned even before the final results were known.

Erdogan seemed to return the favor Tuesday, congratulating Trump for his “legendary triumph” in the November election. Trump similarly praised the “legendary” courage of Turkish troops in the Korean War.

After the meeting, the White House said Trump had raised the incarceration of Andrew Brunson, an American Christian missionary posted in Turkey who was arrested last year in the post-coup-attempt crackdown, and had asked Erdogan to expeditiously return him to the United States.

Securing Brunson’s release, which the Obama administration failed to do, “would be a huge victory for Trump on Capitol Hill and with his Christian conservative base,” said Naz Durakoglu, a specialist on Turkey at Washington’s nonpartisan Atlantic Council. “And President Trump certainly needs a boost on Capitol Hill right now.”

There is a precedent. Last month, after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi visited the White House, an Egyptian American aid worker was released after spending nearly three years in a Cairo prison on what were widely seen as specious charges.

The White House said Trump had personally appealed to Sisi for the woman’s release. Obama, it noted, had never invited Sisi to Washington because of his government’s human rights abuses.

tracy.wilkinson@latimes.com

For more on international affairs, follow @TracyKWilkinson on Twitter

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UPDATES:

2:40 p.m.: This story was updated with details from the White House meeting.

This story was originally posted at 3 a.m.

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