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Erdogan Curbs Criticism of Trump, Seeking Warmer Relationship

“Now we have all the prospects of a fresh start,” Ilnur Cevik, a senior adviser to Mr. Erdogan, said during an interview at the presidential palace in Ankara, the Turkish capital. “We have an opening with Mr. Trump.”

Turkish-American relations frayed over differing views on the war in Syria and the widespread belief in Turkey that the United States played a role in a failed coup last summer. In recent months, Turkey grew frustrated at America’s refusal to extradite Fethullah Gulen, the Pennsylvania-based leader of a religious social movement whom the Turkish government accuses of organizing the coup attempt in July. This compounded a longer-running feud concerning American support for the leading Kurdish militia in northern Syria, which Turkey regards as a terrorist group.

Now that Mr. Trump has entered office, Ankara hopes for a change in America’s policy toward the Syrian Kurds. Specifically, Mr. Erdogan wants the United States to scrap an Obama-era plan to work with Kurds to recapture Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State, and try instead with Turkish troops and Syrian Arab militias.

At the same time, Turkish officials believe the Trump administration is more likely to support extradition of Mr. Gulen and could crack down on Mr. Gulen’s supporters in the United States, where they operate a network of schools.

“Hopes are very high in Ankara that Turkey-U.S. relations will be much better under a Trump administration than the previous administration,” said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, the director of the Ankara office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a research organization. “Erdogan does not want to endanger these two issues by speaking out against the Muslim ban.”

The meeting this past week between Mr. Erdogan and Mike Pompeo, the new head of the C.I.A., was interpreted in Turkey as a good sign — as was the phone call Wednesday between the two presidents. And Prime Minister Binali Yildirim reported that his phone conversation with Vice President Mike Pence had heralded a “new day” in relations.

“What we’re seeing on the ground is that Trump has stopped the plan,” Mr. Cevik said, referring to the Obama administration’s plan to arm the Syrian Kurds for the offensive on Raqqa. He was meeting with a New York Times journalist as Mr. Pompeo spoke to Mr. Erdogan in another part of the president’s palace. “Turkey has received information that this is the case.”

But Washington insiders are more skeptical and say Turkish officials may have misplaced their hopes for specific changes in American policy in Syria.


People stood on a damaged tank in Ankara after a failed military coup last July. Turkey has grown frustrated at the United States’ unwillingness to extradite Fethullah Gulen, whom the Turkish government accuses of organizing the coup attempt.

Emin Ozmen for The New York Times

“I don’t know why the Turks are so confident,” said Aaron Stein, a Turkey-focused analyst at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank. And James F. Jeffrey, a former United States ambassador to Turkey, said, “They’re just not a strong enough force” to be the only American partner in Raqqa.

The phone call on Wednesday was most likely a routine conversation, Mr. Stein said, while the suspension of the Raqqa plan may yet be lifted once the Trump administration completes a 30-day review of Obama-era policies. Turkish troops and their Syrian allies, who have struggled to take the Islamic State-held city of Al Bab in recent months, may not be the best short-term partners in the fight for Raqqa.

“It’s very simple for the Trump administration,” Mr. Stein said by telephone. “They can either delay the operation for Raqqa into 2018, and entertain using a Turkish force without the Y.P.G.,” a reference to the Syrian Kurdish force that President Obama considered arming. “Or they can go in the next six months with the Y.P.G.”

The latter seems likelier, Mr. Stein said: “All indications are that countering the Islamic State is their priority — so that doesn’t bode well for U.S.-Turkey relations.”

Ankara’s hopes are also rooted in the widespread belief that Mr. Trump does not care about Turkey’s domestic struggles and is unlikely to lecture the government about issues like the jailing of journalists or continuing crackdowns against Gulen followers and Kurds.

“Trump is not interested in Turkey’s human development or in it being a model country,” Asli Aydintasbas, a prominent Turkish columnist, wrote this past week in Cumhuriyet, a secular daily newspaper. “He is looking for soldiers to fight Islamic radicalism in the region.”

On Friday, Mr. Erdogan approved plans for an April referendum in which Turks will vote on whether to grant him even greater power. While the result is still at stake, Mr. Erdogan is unlikely to commit to any compromise on Syrian Kurds, as this could endanger his chances of winning the referendum, said Mr. Jeffrey, the former ambassador.

But after the referendum, Mr. Jeffrey said, “then Erdogan may have more flexibility to accept the same or even greater role for the U.S. and the Y.P.G. — as long as he gets three things.”

According to Mr. Jeffrey, the United States would need to convince Turkey of its commitment to engagement with the Middle East, clearly demonstrate its opposition to a single Kurdish statelet along Turkey’s entire southern border and give Turkey at least a small role in the Raqqa operation.

At the presidential palace in Ankara, Mr. Cevik suggested that Turkey might tolerate some kind of Kurdish canton in northeastern Syria, but would not accept any Kurdish presence in majority-Arab areas west of the Euphrates River.

“We will knock them out from Manbij, west of Euphrates,” Mr. Cevik said. “We’re not going to touch them east of the Euphrates.”

Mr. Cevik added that it would also be crucial for the Syrian Kurds to distance themselves from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., a Kurdish group that has waged an insurgency in southeastern Turkey for decades, and that Turkey, the United States and European countries have listed as a terrorist group.

“Can’t they be another Barzani?” Mr. Cevik asked, referring to Masoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdish region in Iraq. “Barzani has excellent ties with Turkey.”

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