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Biden Meets With Leaders In Turkey As Turkish Troops Move Into Syria

Aug 24, 2016
Originally published on August 24, 2016 1:35 pm
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Turkey today on what's being seen as a fence-mending mission. Ties have been strained between the two countries since an attempted coup last month. Some Turks believe the United States knew about the plot in advance or even supported it. After meeting Turkey's prime minister, Vice President Biden was emphatic in his denial.

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VICE PRES JOE BIDEN: The people of the United States of America abhor what happened and under no circumstances would support anything remotely approaching the cowardly act of the treasonous members of your military.

GREENE: Now, let's remember, Turkey is an important ally for the United States. It's a NATO member and central in the fight against ISIS, working closely with the U.S. military. Biden reminded Turks that this is a relationship that benefits both sides.

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BIDEN: The people of Turkey have no greater friend - if you'll excuse me for being so self-serving - have no greater friend than the United States of America.

GREENE: OK, let's talk about this with our correspondent who's based in Istanbul. NPR's Peter Kenyon is on the line. Peter, good morning.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: So are they patching things up?

KENYON: Well, yes and no. The tone of the meeting between Biden and Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim was very friendly and respectful as best we can tell from the news conference they did afterwards. But it was also clear that some of what happened in the meeting was an airing of views, not necessarily a meeting of minds.

GREENE: (Laughter) Good way to put it.

KENYON: Biden even joked - yeah, well, Biden was moved to joke towards the end about having had a frank and candid exchange of views, which, as you know, is standard diplomatic speak for not getting along.

GREENE: Yeah, when you hear frank and candid you wonder how angry things got if they got angry.

KENYON: Yeah, a good question. But a big part of Biden's visit beyond that is to clear the air about some of the suspicions, the claims that have been circulating - you've already mentioned some of them - starting in the pro-government media, but even extending to some members of the government, about whether America really supports Turkey's elected government. And Biden was all in on that. He denied it all. And he, you know, saluted the Turkish people. But there are still some differences of opinion remaining, and they're not going to disappear immediately.

GREENE: And one of those differences involves this Islamic cleric, who is based in Pennsylvania right now, who the Turks really blame for masterminding the coup. I mean, is this something that we believe came up in these meetings?

KENYON: Oh, it did. It's the really big issue for Turkey. There's no chance it wasn't going to come up on their side. Fethullah Gulen - he's lived in Pennsylvania for years - denies any involvement in the coup attempt. But most Turks, many Turks at least, are convinced he was behind it. The government has warrants out for his arrest, demanding his return. Biden was quite sympathetic - he spoke directly to this - about the anger felt on the streets of Turkey. But he didn't budge on the need to satisfy due process in the legal world. Here's what he said.

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BIDEN: We have no, no, no, no interest whatsoever in protecting anyone who has done harm to an ally. None. But we need to meet the legal standard requirement under our law.

KENYON: Now, the prime minister on the Turkish side was pretty appreciative of some of what's happened - the U.S. expert delegation that just spent two days here going over the evidentiary issues and other technical things. But he did repeat that Turkey's wish is that all this legal procedure could just happen instantly, as he put it, and result - let's get to the end game and get Fethullah Gulen back here to face charges. So clearly that's still a difference.

GREENE: OK. So Biden's saying this is something that would have to work through the legal process. You know, Peter, interesting timing here because this meeting is taking place at a moment when the Turkish military has just moved into Syria going after ISIS. I mean, the U.S. and Turkey have been working hand in hand in that fight. What is the latest there?

KENYON: Well, it's a big deal for the Turkish military, you know, which as we know is still recovering from this failed coup attempt. Turkish tanks, special forces entered Syria in an unusual show of military force on the ground. This is largely a Turkish effort. There is some U.S. air surveillance support. There's ground troops from the Free Syrian Army and other Western-backed rebel groups but an unusually strong role for Turkey this time. And President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says, last weekend's bombing in Gaziantep - 54 dead at a wedding - that was the last straw. And the big goal is to clear ISIS out of the border area, but it also has another effect. It makes sure that Syrian Kurdish forces do not take this border town of Jarablus. And that's something Turkey is eager to prevent.

GREENE: And just remind us there about the Kurds, Peter, because some disagreement - I mean, Turkey has always considered Kurdish militias as terrorist groups coming after Turkey within its borders. But the United States has been working with Kurds in the fight against ISIS, right?

KENYON: Well, that's exactly right. And it's a red line for the Turks - the Euphrates River in Syria. And the Kurdish fighters crossed that river when they took the city of Manbij from ISIS. Turkey wants them back across to the west side of the river. And today, Vice President Biden was explicit, saying we have told the Kurds that they better get back across the river or they're going to lose American support.

GREENE: OK, lots to talk about as Vice President Joe Biden visits Turkey today. We've been speaking with NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Peter, thanks a lot.

KENYON: Thanks, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.