President Donald Trump was set to hold talks on Tuesday with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan amid tensions over the U.S. decision to arm Kurdish fighters in Syria that angered Ankara, a crucial partner in the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State forces.
The meeting between Trump and Erdogan comes during an uproar in Washington over reports that the U.S. president disclosed sensitive information regarding Islamic State to senior Russian officials during a White House meeting last week.
Trump’s approval of plans to supply the Kurdish YPG militia as it advances toward the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa in Syria cast a shadow over the talks between the leaders of NATO allies Turkey and the United States. U.S. officials disclosed the plans on May 9.
Erdogan has pledged to use the White House meeting to try to get Trump to change course on the YPG. Ankara regards the YPG as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has fought an insurgency in southeastern Turkey since 1984 and is considered a terrorist group by the United States, Turkey and Europe.
The YPG, or People’s Protection Units, effectively serves as the military of the autonomous Kurdish-led regions that emerged in northern Syria with the retreat of state authority in 2011 that accompanied the outbreak of civil war.
The United States sees the YPG as distinct from the PKK and as a valuable partner in the fight against Islamic State.
Trump, who took office in January, has sought to reach out to Erdogan, and was criticized by some in the United States for congratulating the Turkish president on his contested win in a referendum on constitutional changes that gave him sweeping new powers.
With the two leaders at odds on treatment of the Kurdish fighters and other issues, the White House meeting is unlikely to produce significant results, said Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington.
“The best thing to be hoped for from this is that they come out saying that they are both determined to work on the relationship and that Turkish concerns are being taken into account,” said Aliriza, who described the move to arm the YPG as an earthquake in U.S.-Turkish relations.
The visit is further complicated by Turkey’s calls for the United States to take steps to extradite Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen. Erdogan blames Gulen supporters for a failed coup attempt last July and has conducted a crackdown on them, drawing criticism from Washington. Gulen has denied involvement in the coup and remains in the United States.
The Turkish government has also raised concerns about a U.S. criminal case against Reza Zarrab, a dual Turkish-Iranian national, arrested last year and charged with helping Iran process millions of dollar in transactions that violated U.S. sanctions against Tehran.