Will Erdogan Get What He Came for out of Trump?
The Turkish strongman meets Trump to smooth out a rocky bilateral relationship.
When President Donald Trump was elected, there were high hopes from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his supporters for an improvement in Turkish-U.S. relations. Trump, unlike his predecessor, Barack Obama, seemed less interested in lecturing Turkey on human rights. And Trump’s temporary national security adviser was a paid agent for the Turkish government, which must have been momentarily confidence-inspiring.
And, indeed, after the flawed Turkish referendum that increased Erdogan’s powers passed in what the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe described as an unfree and unfair election, Trump sought out Erdogan to congratulate him, rather than chide him.
But then, on May 9, just one week before Erdogan’s White House visit, the United States announced it would provide weapons to the YPG, Kurdish forces fighting as part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the rebels who are currently planning to assault Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State. The United States considers the YPG fighters the best boots on the ground and key allies in the fight against ISIS, but Turkey considers them terrorists, claiming that the YPG is simply the armed wing of an outlawed Kurdish terror outfit, the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. The decision to arm the YPG drove Ankara ballistic.
“Erdogan is very unhappy with this because they see how the YPG and PKK are linked,” said Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Turkey is basically fighting the same guys one degree apart from the guys helping the U.S. liberate Raqqa,” he said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin waded into the spat on Monday, helpfully noting that he sees no reason to to arm the Syrian Kurds, a jab against Washington. Then again, Russia uses the Kurds as a convenient bargaining chip in its troubled dealings with Turkey: When things are friendly, Moscow will throw the Kurds under the bus; when tensions with Ankara spike, as they did in late 2015, Moscow ramps up its support for Kurds.
So the big question is: Does arming the YPG put the final nail into the strained U.S.-Turkey relationship?
Probably not. First of all, the decision to arm the Syrian Kurds may have been announced Tuesday, and it may have been timed to fall between the Turkish referendum and Erdogan’s visit. But the administration didn’t decide out of the blue to arm the Kurds; military planners have long said that’s a necessary step to ever retake Raqqa, and the move has likely been in the works for over two years, Freedom House’s Nate Schenkkan told Foreign Policy.
Trump could make some concessions to appease Erdogan, suggested Sinan Ulgen of Carnegie Europe. For example, the United States could provide more “actionable intelligence” to be used in the fight against the PKK.
Others agree. “We know there’s going to be a deal. There has to be a deal,” said Cagaptay.
Trump and Erdogan could hash out an agreement where Turkey “trades” Raqqa to the United States and its Syrian Kurdish allies, in exchange for a U.S. green light for a Turkish attack on the Sinjar region, a PKK stronghold in northern Iraq. Turkey carried out airstrikes in Sinjar in recent weeks to target the PKK, attacks that Iraq and other Kurdish groups swiftly condemned. Erdogan may be hoping Washington will look the other way as it ramps up attacks there, Cagaptay said.
In another potential trade off, the United States could commit to putting more pressure on Fetullah Gulen’s network. Gulen is the Pennsylvania-based cleric, a former Erdogan ally, whom Erdogan blames for last July’s botched coup attempt.
Turkey has tried to get the United States to extradite Gulen, but hasn’t presented convincing evidence to U.S. officials. (Mike Flynn, Trump’s dismissed former national security adviser, reportedly discussed simply snatching Gulen and spiriting him out of the country in talks with Turkish officials last summer.)
But Gulen is the power behind a sprawling web of schools and cultural centers around which the U.S. government could theoretically find ways to quietly tighten the noose.
Finally, the United States could make some concessions in the case of Reza Zarrab, the Turkish businessman jailed for violating Iran sanctions (former Trump surrogate Rudy Giuliani is on Zarrab’s legal team).
Big developments or concessions where Gulen or Zarrab are concerned, however, could have domestic consequences for the Trump team. And besides, the White House may not need to make them in the first place — the two leaders seem very interested in getting off to a good start with one another, ready to sweep pesky issues like human rights under the rug to tackle shared concerns about ISIS terrorism. Erdogan, for his part, signaled he’s willing to look the other way on Trump’s apparent anti-Muslim measures.
“Erdogan was almost completely absent during the Muslim travel ban which was very surprising — Erdogan usually has something to say about everything,” said Cagaptay, referring to Trump’s early attempts to block travel to the United States from Muslim-majority Arab countries that got shot down twice in federal courts. “This shows he really wants to have a good start with Trump.”
Erdogan, Schenkkan said, is in town “for the photo opp, and he’ll get that. He’ll get the handshake in the Oval Office. He’ll get the poster. For all the problematic ways Trump’s image presents itself in Muslim world, that’s what Erdogan wants.”
And Erdogan very probably won’t have to sit through a lecture on all the politicians and civil servants and soldiers and journalists who have been jailed in Turkey since the failed coup.
“I would be pleasantly surprised if there were words that came out of this meeting about the importance of human rights,” said Schenkkan.
Photo credit: Kenzaburo Fukuhara-Pool/Getty Images
Emily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering ambassadorial and diplomatic affairs in Washington. @emilyctamkin