Trump and Erdogan Need to Discuss Some Hard Truths

Trump and Erdogan Need to Discuss Some Hard Truths

Dear Mr. President: On Tuesday, you are set to meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the White House. His mood is always unpredictable, even more so after a narrow (and potentially fraudulent) victory in a referendum that strengthened the powers of the presidency. He is unhappy about last week’s announcement of your decision to arm the Syrian Kurds. You’ve been a good friend to him since taking office. Your congratulatory phone call after the referendum bestowed legitimacy in the face of critiques from international observers. Like your predecessors, you refrained from labeling the massacre of Armenians by Ottoman Turks as genocide. And your decision to bomb a Syrian airbase after a chemical weapons attack warmed Erdogan’s Assad-hating heart. You will need this political capital to address the thorny Kurdish issue creating tensions in Syria. In addition, you should urge constructive engagement on Cyprus and actions to improve rule of law in Turkey.


The main objective of this meeting is finding a way forward in Syria, particularly given your decision to provide heavy weapons to Syrian Kurdish fighters (known as the YPG) in the impending assault on Raqqa (the de facto capital of the Islamic State). Erdogan has long argued that Syrian Arab fighters should lead the campaign instead, and publicly expressed hope that your plan would be “reversed as soon as possible.” At a minimum, he will be seeking concessions. This difficult conversation will go better if it begins with an honest discussion about the Kurds.

For over two years, the United States has partnered with the YPG against the Islamic State in Syria. Although an effective military tactic in the short term, it wasn’t accompanied by a political strategy that accounted for the YPG’s desire to create an autonomous Kurdish region in northern Syria. It also failed to acknowledge the group’s linkages to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization that has fought the Turkish government for decades. Viewing the Syrian quagmire through a counterterrorism lens has made it easier to deride Turkish objections and ignore the spillover onto Turkish politics. Recall that Erdogan was credited with initiating a peace process with the PKK. The 36-month ceasefire broke down in July 2015, due in part to Syria-related tensions. Violence resumed on both sides (including mass-casualty attacks by the PKK in Ankara and Istanbul last year) and the Turkish government imprisoned Kurdish leaders (including Selahattin Demirtas, the head of the Peoples’ Democratic Party, along with 13 members of Parliament and dozens of elected mayors) on spurious terrorism charges. While the United States has managed this powder keg, it exploded on April 25 when Turkey launched strikes on the YPG and U.S. forces scrambled to contain the fighting. The time has come for the United States to resolve this longstanding tension in its Syria policy.

You and Erdogan will need to discuss some hard truths.

First, you should recognize Turkey is an important NATO ally, influential Sunni regional power, and necessary player in resolving the Syria conflict.

Second, you should acknowledge the links between the YPG and PKK. And you should accept the impact of (American-supported) Kurdish action in Syria on Turkish domestic politics. You should press Erdogan to resume peace talks with the PKK, offering U.S. support as desired. Reconciliation is ultimately the only way this overarching problem can get resolved. As you said last July when asked about this predicament, “it would be ideal if we could get them all together.” In addition, you should pledge to have frank conversations with the YPG, stressing the harm to its cause by large-scale PKK attacks and encouraging the resumption of peace talks in Turkey. Relatedly, Erdogan might seek your support for enhanced military action against the PKK in northern Iraq. Turkey has long targeted the PKK’s headquarters in the Qandil mountains. But Ankara has become increasingly concerned about the growing PKK presence alongside Yazidis and Iranian-linked Shiite militias at Mount Sinjar, which the Turkish Air Force also bombed on April 25. While a shift in Turkish focus could alleviate some pressure in Syria, it would create new headaches in Iraq.

Third, you and Erdogan should discuss a long-term strategy for Syria — particularly given Turkish engagement with Russia and Iran in peace talks and discussions of “de-escalation zones.” You should address the boundaries of any Kurdish-controlled region in Syria. Erdogan will want assurance that the YPG won’t seek independence, will allow local Sunnis to return home, and won’t stage attacks into Turkey. The YPG will seek to retain control of existing territory and have a voice in Syria’s political future. You must tell the YPG the limits of American support for its political project, as members shouldn’t sacrifice their lives under false pretenses. Then you and Erdogan should discuss the force that will hold Raqqa after the Islamic State is cleared and next steps in the military campaign. In this context, you can have a more productive conversation about upcoming military operations, including precautions to address Turkey’s security concerns (such as a Turkish role in the fight and metering weapons given to the YPG).


Erdogan’s fraught relations with European leaders soured during a bitter referendum campaign, during which he accused Germany and the Netherlands of “nazism.” EU leaders have expressed concerns about Turkey’s democratic standards, asked Erdogan to clarify if Turkey still seeks EU membership, and warned that his threat to reintroduce the death penalty would end talks. On Europe Day (May 9), Erdogan released a conciliatory statement expressing his desire to continue negotiations on a “win-win” basis and engage on mutual interests.

In particular, Erdogan cited cooperation on migration as the “most concrete and up-to-date example” of Turkey’s European aspirations. Last March, Ankara agreed Greece could return irregular migrants who reached its islands from Turkey. In exchange, the EU would increase resettlement of Syrian refugees residing in Turkey, accelerate visa liberalization, and increase financial support for Turkey’s refugee population. The deal, which is arguably cynical on both sides, has had mixed success. Given your aversion to welcoming more Syrian refugees into the United States, it is important to ensure they receive fair and humane treatment in Europe. You should thank Erdogan for hosting over 3 million Syrians. While pledging continued U.S. assistance, you should ask why his government revoked the registration of Mercy Corps — an American nonprofit helping refugees in Turkey and Syria for over five years. You should also advise against unhelpful threats to flood Europe with refugees and encourage continued cooperation with the EU.

In addition, Erdogan could generate goodwill in Europe by helping resolve one of its longest frozen conflicts. Reunification of Cyprus would be a quadruple win: Cypriots could live in peace, Turkey could get easier access to regional energy reserves, NATO and the EU could work together, and you could achieve an early foreign-policy win. Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders have significantly narrowed their differences over two years of negotiations. As talks are reaching the make or break point, Erdogan is a key variable in achieving success. Now that referendum politicking is over, you should press him to help close the deal. In particular, he needs to reach agreement on thorny security issues — including the drawdown of Turkish troops on the island.

Economic ties

You know well the potential of American investment in Turkey, given Trump Towers in Istanbul. Erdogan is credited with introducing reforms that created an economic boom, which has preserved middle-class support in the face of illiberal social policies. Yet terrorist attacks and political instability have contributed to a less attractive investment climate and the steady depreciation of the lira. While the United States enjoys a trade surplus with Turkey, you should press Erdogan to take measures (including less government intervention) that would make life easier for American companies. You could also discuss previously attempted but unfulfilled efforts to expand bilateral economic ties, which could serve the dual purpose of encouraging reform.

Rule of law

As NATO allies, it is troubling to see Erdogan’s crackdown on civil society and his increasingly authoritarian policies. Although it is unpleasant to discuss rule-of-law issues, you should encourage Erdogan to take small steps that would help calm post-referendum tensions at home and reassure worried leaders in Europe. As you persuaded Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to free a wrongfully imprisoned American aid worker, you should convince Erdogan to begin by releasing from jail some Kurdish politicians and journalists (the Committee to Protect Journalists cites at least 81 reporters imprisoned for their work, more than anywhere else in the world).

Watch out for judicial requests

Erdogan will undoubtedly raise two judicial issues, likely hoping for greater sympathy given his unhappiness with your YPG decision. He will press for the extradition of Fetullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric living in Pennsylvania whom Erdogan has accused of orchestrating last July’s coup attempt. The previous administration took a legalistic approach, requiring evidence to persuade a federal judge of probable cause. However, the boxes of documents provided by the Turkish government have not produced a smoking gun. Erdogan may encourage creative thinking about other ways to return Gulen to Turkey; your former national security advisor, Michael Flynn, was reportedly exploring options while on the Turkish government’s payroll. Circumventing U.S. law is inadvisable. In addition, you should tell Erdogan to knock off the cynical investigations launched by a Turkish prosecutor the day before the referendum into 17 people accused of provoking the coup — including Sen. Chuck Schumer, former CIA chief John Brennan, and former District Attorney Preet Bharara.

Erdogan will also raise the issue of Reza Zerrab, a Turkish-Iranian gold trader charged with money laundering as a means of helping Iran bypass U.S. sanctions. Bharara was handling this case, until you fired him after he refused to resign. You may have already heard the details from Rudy Guiliani, who is a member of Zerrab’s legal team and discussed the case with Erdogan earlier this year. Erdogan will press for Zerrab’s release, particularly amid rumors his scheme could implicate Turkish government ministers (including Erdogan) in a corruption scandal. Notwithstanding your criticism of American judges, you should cite judicial independence and decline to intervene.

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