- By Emily TamkinEmily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. She writes for FP’s The Cable, a real-time take on the news in Washington and the wider world. She has been at FP since the fall of 2016, before which she was an associate editor at New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. She has a B.A. in Russian literature from Columbia University, an M.Phil. in Russian and East European studies from the University of Oxford, and studied Soviet dissidence in archival centers in Moscow, Tbilisi, and, on a Fulbright, in Bremen — all of which means that at FP, she writes when she can on Russia and Central and Eastern Europe.
The stage was set for a showdown.
The week before Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited the White House, the United States announced it would be arming the YPG, a Kurdish group based in Syria, and a key ally in the U.S. fight against the Islamic State. Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist organization, and Erdogan responded at the time by urging U.S. President Donald Trump to reverse this decision, and pledging to raise the issue in person.
But, at joint remarks delivered from the White House on Tuesday, Erdogan stopped short of condemning the White House plan. Working with the YPG, Erdogan said, is “against the global agreement we have reached,” suggesting that to ally oneself with a terrorist organization is against the international order.
But that can hardly be counted as strict censure of his U.S. counterpart, particularly in the context of remarks in which Erdogan mentioned Trump’s electoral victory twice.
“My guess,” Bulent Aliriza of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said, is that Erdogan “swallowed what was really a very unpleasant development by the United States because he is determined to start off on the right foot with Trump.”
“Both sides,” he continued, “have every incentive” to make sure their public meetings go well. “Both sides would be putting a brave face on it.”
Erdogan’s willingness to make nice is likely also because he expects something in return for good behavior. Aliriza guessed Trump might concede that Turkey can hit the PKK, a Kurdish group the United States recognizes as a terrorist group, in Iraq. Other experts have suggested the Trump administration might go after Pennsylvania-based Turkish cleric Fetullah Gulen’s cultural network without actually extraditing Gulen, whom Erdogan blamed for the July 2016 failed coup (a point to which he alluded in his remarks). The two countries could also tighten economic ties, as both Trump and Erdogan suggested in their remarks.
“Economic relations have long been an underdeveloped area of bilateral relations,” Amanda Sloat, a fellow in the Ash Center at Harvard Kennedy School and former deputy assistant secretary of state for southern Europe and eastern Mediterranean affairs in the Barack Obama administration, said. “Erdogan and Obama pledged in 2009 to launch new initiatives, but they but never fully developed. It is ripe area for cooperation, free from politics and of mutual interest.”
And so both Trump and Erdogan playing nice, that the U.S.-Turkish relationship can be reset, even if it just means cutting a deal.
But, then, that change seems to suit the current U.S. president just fine.
In Dec. 2009, then-President Obama welcomed Erdogan, then the prime minister, to the White House. Obama at the time lauded Turkey for its commitment to rule of law and minority rights, and stressed the strategic relationship between the two countries.
Much has changed in the last several years however. Erdogan is now president, and has carried out a crackdown on opposition politicians and journalists (to read through remarks between Obama and Erdogan over Obama’s eight years in office is to watch the word “friend” quietly be removed from official rhetoric). Obama was succeeded by Trump.
Trump, in his first joint remarks with Erdogan, spoke of the countries’ shared commitment to fighting. “Turkish courage in war is legendary,” the president said. Trump alluded to boosting commercial and trade ties, but, for the most part, his statement centered on the fight against terrorism.
It was Erdogan, not Trump, who mentioned “common democratic values and common interests,” and stressed the strategic relationship.
“Trump doesn’t talk about strategic partnership at all,” Aliriza said. “it’s Erdogan who raised it.”
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