Supporters of the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wave Turkish flags and shout slogans as the Turkey's Prime Minister Binali Yildirim addresses voters during a rally to shore up support for a 'yes' vote in next month's referendum in Turkey on expanding presidential powers, at a stadium in Nicosia, Cyprus, on March 9, 2017.(Photo: Petros Karadjias, AP)
ANKARA, Turkey — Relations have been strained lately between the United States and NATO-ally Turkey, one of the world’s most populous Muslim countries. But President Trump has an opportunity to turn things around in Turkey's view.
All he needs to do is these five things, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told a group of American reporters Thursday:
Drop “Radical Islamic terrorism”
The phrase, used repeatedly by Trump and avoided by former president Barack Obama, “is simply divisive language,” Yildirim said.
Turkey ranks sixth among the world’s most populous Muslim-majority countries, according to the Pew Research Center.
Like most other Muslim nations, “Turkey is an ally, and having a negative thought against (Muslims) should not go hand-in-hand,” he said.
The Islamic State terrorists “are no Muslims,” and they’ve targeted far more Muslims than any other group, Yildirim said. “They’re just murderers.”
Support Turkey’s state of emergency
The attempted coup on July 15 also has been a source of friction between the two countries. Some of the plotters worked out of a military base shared with U.S. forces.
Western leaders, including Americans, were already griping about a Turkish slide toward authoritarianism before the attempted coup, and that narrative hasn’t changed after a crackdown resulted in the detention or dismissal of 150,000 suspected plotters and sympathizers. Many lost jobs in the military, police, judicial system and schools.
Special powers of arrest without charges and secret prosecutions implemented after the coup attempt will likely continue for at least four months, the prime minister said.
Turkey blames the coup on followers of exiled Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, saying he used a network of schools and businesses to infiltrate government institutions. “The state has the right to rid itself of people who are not loyal,” Yildirim said. “We are still in that process of that clean up.”
The state of emergency expires April 20. “It will almost certainly be extended after that another three months longer,” he said. “After that we will assess it again.”
Extradite Fethullah Gulen
Gulen, the cleric who Turkey considers the mastermind of the coup attempt, is holed up in a private compound in Pennsylvania. Gulen has repeatedly denied any involvement in the uprising that resulted in at least 270 deaths.
Improving U.S.-Turkey relations should start with U.S. cooperation in bringing Gulen to justice, Yildirim said.
Turkey turned over 84 cases of evidence to the U.S. Justice Department, and Yildirim said that information should be submitted to a judge. The Justice Department is reviewing a second batch of evidence after a first set was deemed unlikely to pass muster in U.S. courts.
Yildirim said he spoke to Vice President Pence about this, but the Trump administration has given no clear message about what it will do.
Gulen “needs to be extradited or at least to be restricted from travel until” the extradition case goes through the court system, he said.
Collaborate on Syria endgame
Turkish leaders have been frustrated with the U.S. for not providing enough support to the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad, now approaching its sixth anniversary.
The U.S. has focused on fighting Islamic State militants, relying mostly on Kurdish forces that the U.S. considers moderate and not prone to terrorism. But the Kurds the U.S. is working with want their own state and are affiliated with a Kurdish separatist group the U.S. and Turkey consider a terrorist organization.
The U.S. should join Turkey’s goal in Syria to end the bloodshed and keep the diverse country from breaking apart, Yildirim said. The civil war pitted parts of Syria’s Sunni Arab majority against Assad’s Alawite clan, but Syria is also home to many other ethnic and religious groups.
Syria can only be at peace under a non-sectarian democratic government that is safe for all its people, Yildirim said.
“We would never want to see two or three separate states in Syria” led exclusively by Arabs or Kurds, he said. “It would be a catastrophe … we would not allow it.”
Support safe zones
After years of Obama's rejecting the idea of safe zones, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has someone in the White House who has expressed interest in creating safe zones for refugees in Syria.
“We know the Trump administration is interested and considering it,” Yildirim said. “We hope that will not be a safe haven for terrorist organizations.”
Such a safe zone can only be a region for peace, but there are risks, he said. Yildirim wants the U.S. and Turkey to come together and work out the details. “Otherwise, whatever is worked out can do more harm than good.”