Erdogan sees 'new beginning' in Turkish-U.S. ties despite Kurdish arms move

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - President Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday his visit to the United States next week could mark a “new beginning” in relations between the NATO allies that were shaken by a U.S. decision to arm Kurdish YPG fighters in Syria.

Erdogan repeated Ankara’s criticism of President Donald Trump’s decision, saying it ran counter to the two countries’ strategic interests - but also sought to portray it as a relic of the Obama administration’s Middle East policy.

“The United States is still going through a transition period. And we have to be more careful and sensitive,” he told a news conference at the Ankara airport before departing for China and the United States. His meeting with Trump will be their first since the president’s January inauguration.

“Right now there are certain moves in the United States coming from the past, such as the weapons assistance to the YPG,” Erdogan said. “These are developments that are in contradiction to our strategic relations with the United States and of course we don’t want this to happen.”

Ankara considers the YPG an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged an insurgency in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast for three decades and is designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the European Union and United States. Washington sees the YPG as distinct from the PKK and as a valuable partner in the fight against in Islamic State.

Erdogan said he did not want to see “a terrorist organization alongside the United States”, and that Turkey would continue military operations against Kurdish militia targets in Iraq and Syria.

But the tone of Erdogan’s comments, four days before he is due in Washington to meet Trump, contrasted with angry rebukes from Ankara earlier this week, when the foreign minister said every weapon sent to the YPG was a threat to Turkey and the defense minister described the move as a crisis.

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Erdogan, who had a fraught relationship with former President Barack Obama, said his meeting with Trump at the White House next week would be decisive. “I actually see this U.S. visit as a new beginning in our ties,” he said.

The meeting would be an opportunity to “correct the mistake” of the U.S. decision to arm the YPG, said Prime Minister Binali Yildirim.

“We have suggested other solutions,” Yildirim said, speaking to reporters at an event in London. “I hope that during the meeting of our president next week with President Donald Trump this issue will be changed to a positive trajectory.”

Trump’s Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said after talks in London on Thursday with Yildirim that he had no doubt the two countries could work through the tensions caused by the decision to arm the YPG.

Arab and Kurdish militias expect to storm Islamic State’s Syrian stronghold of Raqqa in early summer, one of their commanders said, with the help of weapons they are awaiting from the U.S.-led coalition.

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A U.S. official also told Reuters that the United States was looking to boost intelligence cooperation with Turkey to support its fight against the PKK.

Asked about U.S. pledges of support, Erdogan suggested he will seek further guarantees when he meets Trump. “Among the information we have received, there is some that satisfy us and others that are not sufficient,” he said.

He also said he would pursue “to the end” Turkey’s demand for the extradition of the U.S.-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, who Ankara says was behind a failed military coup last July. That was followed by a purge of tens of thousands of Turkish state employees accused of links to Gulen, who has denied any involvement in the coup attempt.

Additional reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara and Dasha Afanasieva and Claire Milhench in London; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by David Dolan and Tom Heneghan