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World

Trump's Meeting With Turkey's Erdogan Could Signal Turning Point In Relations

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

President Trump welcomes Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the White House tomorrow for what could be an awkward first meeting. Erdogan recently won a referendum in Turkey that gave him even more power. While many countries looked at it as a step towards authoritarianism, President Trump congratulated Erdogan. The two countries are working together to fight ISIS in Syria, but Turkey doesn't think much about a recent American change in policy.

Here to talk about all this is Aaron Stein. He's a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. Welcome to the program.

AARON STEIN: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: So first, what kind of reception should we expect (laughter) at the White House?

STEIN: Well, I think the White House is trying to pull out all the stops so that President Erdogan feels welcomed and that he's actually an ally of the United States. The rollout of this is to try and smooth over feelings over this change in policy you mentioned, which is that the United States has decided to go in a direction in Syria that Turkey doesn't agree with.

CORNISH: And that direction is the U.S.'s recent decision to arm the Kurds fighting in Syria. They're fighting ISIS. But Turkey says that they're aligned with Kurds in Turkey who are fighting the Turkish government, right? The Kurdish people have long longed for their own independence. So why is the U.S. making this change?

STEIN: Yeah, it's the fundamental problem where you're trying to manage U.S.-Turkey relations while trying to run a war in Syria. Your most capable ground partners for the United States are the Syrian Kurds, but those Syrian Kurds are linked to Turkish Kurds who are currently fighting an insurgency inside of southeast Turkey.

CORNISH: I mean the whole point is that they're good fighters, right?

STEIN: They're very good fighters, and they take a lot of territory, and they do so quickly. And so the U.S. military particularly likes them, but this causes a lot of political headaches for the bureaucrats in Washington. And it's these tensions that the White House visit is trying to smooth over.

CORNISH: So what are some of the other issues that Erdogan might want to bring up with President Trump?

STEIN: Well, certainly the other issue besides the Syrian Kurds is a man named Fethullah Gulen, who's a self-exiled imam who lives up in Saylorsburg, Pa. And the Turkish government accused him of being the mastermind behind the failed July coup attempt in Turkey, and so they have been pushing for his extradition basically ever since.

CORNISH: Right, expelling his followers, jailing them and that sort of thing, right?

STEIN: The purges began a little earlier. There was a big fallout between Gulen and Erdogan in December 2013 over the leaking of tapes that implied that Erdogan's family was involved in corruption. And the purges began then but certainly accelerated in Turkey after the coup.

CORNISH: The thing we should also note is that the kind of global attention on Erdogan and how he has been operating in the country has shifted (laughter) - a little less celebrated. Let's put it that way. With all of this criticism, do we expect any conversation about human rights or about the approach he's taken in Turkey?

STEIN: I don't think so. You know, I think the Trump administration has by their own admission said that human rights is no longer going to be a top priority of international relations...

CORNISH: Or a guiding one, right?

STEIN: ...Or a guiding one, to use the secretary of state's words. And this is really about trying to give Turkey a big hug. And so you do not want to have a nasty meeting inside of the Oval Office about things that the United States has made secondary like the jailing of journalists, press freedoms or human rights issues.

CORNISH: What are you going to be looking for out of this meeting that will signal the direction that the U.S.-Turkey relationship is going in?

STEIN: It'll be the day after. You know, President Erdogan will go home tomorrow on his airplane basically after the meeting with Trump, and then he will hold a gaggle on the plane with sort of self-selected journalists. What is the tone that comes out of that interview? Will it be conciliatory, said the U.S. is trying to take steps? Or will it be harsh? And if it's harsh, where does Turkey go from there?

CORNISH: Aaron Stein is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. Thank you for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

STEIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.