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Erdogan Says He Wants A 'New Beginning' In U.S.-Turkish Relations


Let's turn now to one of Iran's neighbors to the west, Turkey. It's the source of our Words You'll Hear for the week. That's when we try to understand the stories we'll be hearing more about by parsing the words associated with those stories. And today's phrase is new beginning. It comes to us via Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan He's headed to Washington this week to sit down with President Trump in what Erdogan is calling a new beginning.

Here's the backdrop. Turkey and the U.S. are allies in the fight against ISIS in Syria, but they're uneasy allies. The U.S. wants to arm a Kurdish rebel group known as the YPG. Meanwhile, Turkey says that group is a terrorist organization. Now let's bring in NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen. Hey, Michele.


KELLY: Hi. So this new beginning in U.S.-Turkish relations - that's what Erdogan says he wants. Is that how you would describe it?

KELEMEN: Well, he's clearly hoping it will be. You know, he just came off from this referendum that granted him more power as he's faced a lot of criticism for his authoritarian tendencies. But he seems to be hoping that this administration - the Trump administration won't be spending too much time on those kind of human rights matters and will instead focus on the anti-ISIS effort.

KELLY: And what about this issue that we mentioned about the U.S. decision to arm a certain Kurdish group that Turkey is very unhappy with? Erdogan has been quoted as saying the decision is a mistake, that he hopes it'll be reversed. How likely is that to happen?

KELEMEN: Not very likely. I mean, these talks have been going on for quite some time, even back during the Obama administration. The U.S. needs forces on the ground in Syria to push ISIS out of Raqqa, for instance. Officials have been trying to reassure Turkey that there are limits to what the Kurdish forces can do. They are not going to stay in areas that they helped to liberate. They're not going to form a united front along the border with Turkey. And these are talks that have been going on for a really long time. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson laid the diplomatic groundwork for some of this when he was in Ankara last month, and the Pentagon has been following up to bring the Turks along.

KELLY: And to try to lower expectations. OK. So that is one area where it sounds like they will have a lot to chew over. Let me raise one other issue that's very much on the table between the U.S. and Turkey right now. That is the cleric Fethullah Gulen. Remind us who he is, why he is of such interest to Turkey.

KELEMEN: Well, the Turks accuse him of being behind a failed coup attempt last year. That's a charge Gulen denies. He's an elderly cleric who's been living in exile for the past couple of decades in a compound in the Poconos in Pennsylvania. Turkish officials have been pressing for a while to get him extradited or short of that to get U.S. authorities to at least put some kind of restrictions on him to limit his influence.

KELLY: And is there any sign that there may be a shift in that policy?

KELEMEN: Well, it's still up to the Justice Department. There's a legal process here that has to be followed. The U.S. would have to make sure that he would get a fair trial back in Turkey. These are talks that have been very complicated for months now.

KELLY: You mentioned that Erdogan's lands in Washington after having just clocked this big triumph at home, the referendum that potentially could allow him to stay in power until 2029. How strong is his hand walking into these talks?

KELEMEN: Well, it means he doesn't have to worry that much about opposition at home and on sort of the real tough, hard power questions, it could help the U.S. persuade him to do things that might not play well at home. That Kurdish example was a good one. The Trump administration didn't announce that it was going to arm the Kurds until after the referendum in Turkey, but those who worry about where Turkey's heading under Erdogan say that U.S. allies that share our values are better allies. The question is does the Trump administration believe that?

KELLY: NPR's Michele Kelemen, thanks so much.

KELEMEN: Nice to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.