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Erdogan, Trump Set to Meet at G20

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and U.S. President Donald Trump are due to meet  on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Erdogan indicated U.S. support for a Syrian Kurdish militia would top their agenda.

Speaking before leaving for Buenos Aires, Erdogan said the planned talks would pick up on themes raised in Wednesday’s telephone call with Trump. Ongoing tensions between Ukraine and Russia initiated the call.

“They agreed to meet again at G20 to discuss this concern and other important issues in the bilateral relationship,” read the White House readout of the call.

Trump and Erdogan have again started to work together on the many crises in Turkey’s region after months of diplomatic tensions. October’s release by a Turkish court of American pastor Andrew Brunson was the trigger for renewed cooperation and talks.

“There are some very thorny issues that have been postponed rather than resolved,” said analyst Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners. “But the release of Brunson has ended a psychological barrier to dialogue.”

At the top of Erdogan’s list of issues to be resolved is Washington’s ongoing support for the YPG Syrian Kurdish militia in its war against the Islamic State.

Turkey considers the YPG terrorists linked to a decades-long insurgency inside Turkey and is pushing for a road map agreement with Washington to end YPG presence in the strategically important Syrian City of Manbij.

Under the deal, American and Turkish forces would replace the militia. “We will discuss the Manbij issue at the [G-20] meeting with U.S. President Trump,” Erdogan said Thursday.

Former senior Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen, who served widely in the region, sees the Manbij deal as a blueprint for future efforts that would feature “joint Turkish-US patrols to push the YPG away from the border.”

Time is against the Kurds, he said. “We are at a new phase in U.S. Turkish relations with greater cooperation.”

Greater cooperation

A major stumbling block to greater cooperation between the U.S. and Turkey are the deepening Turkish-Iranian ties. Observers point out Washington increasingly sees curtailing Iran’s presence in Syria a priority, a role the YPG could play given it controls a fifth of Syrian territory.

“They [Washington] will ask Turkey to follow in line against Iran and hold the ground.” said Selcen, “Then, this will push Turkey to distance itself from the Astana process, from Iran and Russia altogether.”

The Astana process brought together Ankara, Moscow, and Tehran in efforts to end the Syrian civil war.

Leverage over Turkey

Trump does retain leverage over Erdogan. Turkish State-owned Halkbank is facing potential multi-billion dollars fines for violating U.S. Iranian sanctions.

“The fact that Halkbank is still on the hook with the American judiciary obliges Turkey to be nice to the U.S.,” said Yesilada.

Erdogan is expected to raise Halkbank with Trump at the G20 summit.

Turkey’s controversial purchase of S400 Russian missiles also is likely feature in the talks. The U.S. is calling for an end to the deal, claiming the missiles threaten to compromise NATO weapons systems, in particular, America’s latest fighter the F-35.

Tit-for-tat

A U.S. Congressional report cautions against the delivery of the F 35 to Turkey if the delivery of S400 goes ahead in mid-2019. Such a move could also jeopardize Turkey’s ongoing participation in the manufacture of the fighter.

“The F-35 is important to Erdogan as part of the development of Turkey’s defense industry, which is a priority for the president,” said Yesilada.

Erdogan insists the S-400 purchase will go ahead, although he has suggested readiness to consider buying an American missile system as well.

International relations professor Huseyin Bagci, of Ankara’s Middle East Technical University, says Turkey has “had enough with the economic and political crisis and now wants to repair relations. And Trump appears prepared to do this.”

Trump has received plaudits in Ankara for taking steps against Turkish Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in the United States and denies Erdogan’s charges he was behind a 2016 coup attempt.

“Ankara is quite content with the state of a recent investigation by the FBI on Gulen’s approximately 180 charter schools in the U.S.” wrote columnist Cansu Camlibel for Hurriyet Daily News. “The FBI has been investigating tax and visa fraud, as well as money laundering, allegations against schools known for their ties to Gülen.”

The Erdogan-Trump meeting is not expected to result in any breakthroughs on critical issues that continue to plague bilateral ties. But analysts suggest both leaders share an interest in working to defuse tensions.

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