CIA chief to visit Turkey in sign of improving ties with US

Suzan Fraser - Associated Press

ANKARA — In a sign of improving ties, Turkish officials said yesterday that US President Donald Trump spoke with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and responded "positively" on two key Turkish demands that had soured Ankara's relations with the Obama administration.

Following the 45-minute telephone conversation late Tuesday, officials from Erdogan's office also announced that CIA Director Mike Pompeo would be making his first overseas visit to Turkey on Thursday. The decision showed the importance the new administration attaches to Turkey, a country on the frontline of the fight against the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq.

Ties between Turkey and the US, which are NATO allies, were strained under the Obama administration. Turkey expressed frustrations over what it perceived as US reluctance to extradite the cleric Fethullah Gulen, who Turkey accused of orchestrating the country's failed military coup. It was also angered by Washington's support of Syrian Kurdish fighters.

While Turkey's government considers the fighters terrorists because of their affiliation with outlawed Kurdish rebels in Turkey, the Obama administration regarded them as the most effective group in the war against the Islamic State group in Syria. It had also asked Turkey to allow the judiciary process for Gulen's return to take its course.

The Turkish government has pinned hopes for improved ties on Trump's presidency, and the call was being closely watched in Turkey for signs of a recovery.

Officials from Erdogan's office, who briefed journalists on condition of anonymity in line with government regulations, said Tuesday's phone conversation was "positive and conducted in a sincere atmosphere." Both leaders stressed their strong alliance and need for close cooperation, and agreed to meet "at the shortest time" possible, they said.

Erdogan requested that Washington "stand with Turkey" in its struggle against the Gulen movement and stop supporting Syrian Kurdish fighters, the officials said.

Erdogan's spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, told Turkey's NTV news channel that the Turkish leader not only asked Trump not to back the Syrian Kurds but also presented a plan in which allies could re-take Raqqa, the main IS-held city in Syria, without the Kurdish fighters.

Trump's "general reactions were positive," Kalin said.

Kalin said Erdogan told Trump that there were "a series of measures" Washington could take while awaiting for the courts to decide on Gulen's extradition, in apparent reference to Turkish demands that the cleric be taken into custody and prevented from running his movement. Trump and his security adviser responded by saying they would "start work" to examine the issue, Kalin said.

Trump and Erdogan also discussed a long-standing Turkish call for the creation of safe zones in Syria, the refugee crisis and the fight against extremist groups, the officials said, without elaborating.

Officials said Pompeo would discuss Gulen and the US backing of Syrian Kurdish fighters during his visit.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, speaking at a joint news conference with his Saudi counterpart in Ankara, sounded optimistic about future cooperation with the Trump administration.

"On the issue of fighting Daesh, we — that is Turkey and Saudi Arabia — will be cooperating with the United States," Cavusoglu said. "We believe that the fight from now on will be more effective and that we will be able to clear both Syria and Iraq of Daesh." He was using an Arabic acronym for the IS group.

The Turkish officials didn't say whether Trump's ban on travelers from seven predominantly Muslim nations was raised during their talk.

Last year, Erdogan criticized Trump — then a Republican presidential candidate — over his comments about barring Muslims from entering the United States and called for his name to be removed from the Trump Towers in Istanbul.

However, the normally outspoken Erdogan has not yet commented in public on the travel ban, which is being reviewed by a federal appeals court.

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