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Syria's SDF leads anti-IS fight, stoking tension with Turkey

16 Mai 2017

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday will have his first face to face talks with President Donald Trump with a tough agenda as Ankara has set it stakes high particularly on the issue of Syria.

Nicholas Heras: There has always been a tension between the USA military's insistence that only Arab groups within the SDF received weapons and the reality that the YPG maintains majority within the SDF.

Trump's approach until now has been to ignore or even endorse Erdogan's autocratic abuses.

Both leaders are proud of their electoral victories, seeing in them a repudiation of establishment elites and a vindication of their populist nationalism tactics.

The air base, however, has been a flashpoint for Turkish-U.S. relations.

This comes days after the US President Donald Trump agreed to arm Kurdish YPG units as part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), that are in fight against ISIS extremists in the group's de facto capital of Raqqa. The U.S., whose forces are sometimes embedded with the Kurds, has much to fear. Tensions got worse in April, when Turkey launched airstrikes against the YPG.

After some sabre rattling, the Turks made clear it would not attack US forces present with YPG forces.

Ankara maintains that the Syrian Kurds are affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which Turkey views as a terrorist organization.

The U.S. supports Turkey against the PKK, but now considers ISIS the greater threat to U.S. national security, in part because the PKK does not seek to impose its ideology globally but seeks a unified independent homeland for all Kurds. "We are not declaring that we will send weapons to the Kurdish organizations like some of the other countries".

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Turkey has been pressuring the drop support for the Kurdish militants in Syria for years and doesn't want them spearheading the Raqqa effort.

Erdogan is expected to ask Trump directly to extradite Gulen.

The possible worsening of relations between Turkey and the USA following the countries of the European Union can strengthen patriotism and nationalist sentiments not only among Erdogan's supporters, but also among the leftist political forces, the anti-American sentiment among whom sometimes is off the charts, and will bring it closer to Russian Federation. The letter borrows heavily from talking points the Turkish Presidency used previously. But Turkey has never offered persuasive evidence that Gulen was involved in the coup, and extradition is likely to be blocked by US courts. Erdogan saw this as a refusal to cooperate against a criminal terrorist, helping to sour further the already hard relationship between his government and the Obama administration.

Trump and Erdogan will also probably discuss Turkey's demand for the extradition of Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen. Gulen's supporters likely fear such an outcome, but it is hard to imagine that Sessions, even if he were convinced that political considerations trumped the law in this case, would acquiesce to such an action on the heels of the early termination of the Federal Bureau of Investigation director. However, the U.S. authorities did not find in the multi-volume cases submitted by Ankara any confirmation of the famous preacher's participation in Turkey's attempted military coup last summer.

Second, continued high-level consultations to preclude any surprises.

Turkey already risked disrupting the war against Islamic State when it targeted the YPG last month.

"Erdogan was nearly completely absent during the Muslim travel ban which was very surprising - Erdogan usually has something to say about everything", said Cagaptay, referring to Trump's early attempts to block travel to the United States from Muslim-majority Arab countries that got shot down twice in federal courts.

But Erdogan may not be amenable to accepting the USA military support for the Kurds in a quid pro quo.

Ed Stafford is a retired Foreign Service Officer whose last overseas assignment was to the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey (2011-2014).

Syria's SDF leads anti-IS fight, stoking tension with Turkey