ISTANBUL — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Trump had their first telephone call late Tuesday, a highly anticipated conversation in which Erdogan was expected to press the new U.S. leader to reject Pentagon proposals to arm Kurdish fighters in Syria and to quickly extradite a Turkish cleric exiled in Pennsylvania and regarded by Turkey as an enemy of the state.
Trump may have preferred to change the subject.
Meeting either demand could be problematic for the administration, analysts said, testing a relationship between the two men that for months has been filled with high hopes and mutual admiration.
A brief White House statement said the two discussed their “shared commitment to combatting terrorism in all its forms.” It said that Trump “reiterated U.S. support to Turkey as a strategic partner and NATO ally, and welcomed Turkey’s contributions” to the campaign against the Islamic State.
During the U.S. presidential campaign, Trump referred in glowing terms to Erdogan’s handling of a failed coup attempt that shook Turkey last summer. He spoke optimistically about the bilateral relationship, telling the New York Times that he hoped Turkey “can do a lot” about the Islamic State.
In the same interview, Trump declined to criticize Erdogan for a campaign of mass arrests and dismissals that followed the attempted coup. “I think it’s very hard for us to get involved in other countries when we don’t know what we are doing and we can’t see straight in our own country,” he said.
Erdogan hailed Trump’s election, quickly extended an invitation to visit Turkey and even praised Trump for putting a reporter “in his place” during a news conference a few weeks ago. More recently, the Turkish president has avoided condemning Trump’s ban on travel to the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries — despite the fact that Erdogan is the Islamist leader of a Muslim-majority country who has spoken out forcefully in the past against perceived anti-
When it comes to Turkey’s most urgent demands, however, it may be difficult for Trump to show much flexibility. The Pentagon is still weeks away from completing a Trump-ordered 30-day review of its strategy to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Top U.S. military commanders had pushed the Obama administration for months to directly arm Kurdish fighters in northern Syria for a final assault on the city of Raqqa, the militants’ de facto capital. Turkey has long warned that it considers the Syrian Kurds to be part of Turkey’s own Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which both Turkey and the United States have labeled a terrorist group.
Obama deferred the decision on the Kurds to Trump, while noting that such plans depended on a quick determination.
Trump’s advisers have not ruled out the military plan but have asked the Pentagon to explore other options, including the possibility of adding Turkish troops to an Arab force that would be aided by an increased U.S. military presence in Syria.
Trump also may have difficulty with Erdogan’s request that the United States extradite the exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkey accuses of masterminding the coup attempt. Turkish officials were encouraged when Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, published an article on Election Day calling Gulen a “radical” and saying the United States “should not provide him safe haven.”
A decision on whether Turkish evidence is strong enough to merit extradition rests with the Justice Department. Even if it recommends such a move, the final decision must be made by a U.S. federal court, where Gulen can contest extradition and appeal if he loses, a process that could take months, if not years.
Gulen has denied playing any role in the attempted coup.
Semih Idiz, a Turkish political analyst and columnist who writes for the al-Monitor news site, said Turkey has left “too many unanswered questions” about its proposed alternative to the Kurdish fighters, including how many Turkish troops would need to be mobilized to replace them.
Even so, any demands made on Tuesday’s phone call could aid Erdogan. “There is public opinion that has to be fed,” Idiz said. “They have to appear to be pushing this to the limit.”
DeYoung reported from Washington. Adam Entous in Washington contributed to this report.