What Will Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan Discuss?

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Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, accompanied by his wife Emine Erdogan, disembarks from a plane upon his arrival in Washington, U.S. May 15, 2017. Reuters

When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sits down with Donald Trump at the White House Tuesday they will likely discuss the civil war in Syria and many expect Erdogan to raise his desired extradition of opposition leader Fethullah Gulen, currently in exile in the United States.

The pair have shared kind words in the past—notably, President Trump was the first world leader to congratulate the Turkish president on his narrow victory in a controversial April referendum granting extensive new executive powers. Critics of the vote accused the Turkish president of seeking to undermine Turkish democracy and expand what they view as an increasingly authoritarian grip on power.

Trump's own comments were at odds with the line taken by his State Department, which responded to result with a statement saying Turkey needed to preserve its commitment to human rights.

Read more: Syrian Kurds will be armed by U.S. for ISIS Fight

While there is a feeling in Ankara that Trump will be easier to work with than his predecessor Barack Obama, Fadi Hakura, the head of Turkey project at Chatham House, tells Newsweek that on the main objectives Erdogan seeks to achieve during his Washington visit, he faces "bitter disappointment".

The war in Syria

The Pentagon announced May 9 that the U.S. would equip Kurdish elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in their push to take back the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) stronghold of Raqqa, which the jihadi group has held since 2014.

But senior Turkish officials and ministers lined up to criticize the plan, pointing out that the backbone of the SDF is the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG). Ankara views the YPG as one and the same as the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey—a Kurdish nationalist group that the U.S. also designates a terrorist group.

Despite assurances from the government that it would "prevent additional security risks" and protect its NATO ally, Erdogan will still seek to have Washington drop its support for the Kurdish forces.

Hakura explains Turkey's involvement in Syria was always subject to the approval of Washington, with the U.S. ready to block Ankara's plans for military expansion at the expense of its Kurdish allies.

In April, a Turkish air raid killed 20 YPG fighters in northern Syria, AFP reported at the time. In response the U.S. deployed armored vehicles along Syria's border with Turkey in a show of support for the group.

"When Turkey bombed YPG targets in northern Syria they elicited a very public admonishment from Washington [and] Turkey quickly folded," Hakura says.

The extradition of Fethullah Gulen

Ankara regularly clashed with Obama's White House over the extradition of opposition leader Fethullah Gulen, who has lived in self-imposed exile in rural Pennsylvania since 1999. Erdogan's government has repeatedly accused Gulen of being behind a coup in Turkey in July 2016.

In the failed takeover bid a group of soldiers commandeered tanks, warplanes and helicopters deploying them in Istanbul and Ankara. Gulen has denied the charges and condemned the coup. However, following the attempted putsch Erdogan has ordered the arrest of tens of thousands in Turkey because of their alleged links to Gulen's Hizmet organization.

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Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, accompanied by his wife Emine Erdogan, disembarks from a plane upon his arrival in Washington, U.S. May 15, 2017. Kayhan Ozer/Presidential Palace

In an article written for the Washington Post to coincide with President Erdogan's arrival in the United States, Gulen said the Turkish leader had "systematically persecuted innocent people," in the wake of the attempted coup, adding that Turkey had entered into a "new stage of authoritarianism."

Trump's former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn wrote before the president took office that the U.S. should extradite Gulen over his radical views. "We need to adjust our foreign policy to recognize Turkey as a priority. We need to see the world from Turkey's perspective," the retired general wrote for the political news website The Hill in November 2016. (Flynn resigned from his position in Trump's government after failing to disclose discussions with Russia's ambassador after Trump's win.)

Hakura says the extradition would be long and drawn out even if Turkey were able to prove Gulen was responsible for the July coup, as it claims. Under Washington's 1979 extradition treaty with Ankara, Turkey must show a standard of evidence for an arrest warrant it has not yet met.

"So far the U.S. Justice Department is not convinced by the veracity of the evidence provided by the Turkish government to initiate the extradition of Fethullah Gulen back to Turkey," Hakura says.