Turkey-US Relations: The Uneasy Alliance to Continue

May 12, 2017

In his address to the United Nations General Assembly on September 24, 2013 President Obama had said:

“… And our approach to Egypt reflects a larger point:  The United States will at times work with governments that do not meet, at least in our view, the highest international expectations, but who work with us on our core interests.  Nevertheless, we will not stop asserting principles that are consistent with our ideals, whether that means opposing the use of violence as a means of suppressing dissent, or supporting the principles embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights…”

President Trump appears determined to challenge and reverse his predecessor’s policies on a wide range of issues. By all indications, however, the foregoing will be an exception with at least the public dimension, if not more, of the “asserting principles” part being dropped.

When he welcomed President al-Sisi at the Oval Office on April 3, 2017 Mr. Trump said, “I just want to let everybody know in case there was any doubt that we are very much behind President el-Sisi. He’s done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation. We are very much behind Egypt and the people of Egypt. The United States has, believe me, backing, and we have strong backing.

President Trump’s first trip abroad later in May will feature stops in Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Vatican, where he will meet with Pope Francis before a Nato summit in Brussels and a G7 summit in Sicily. According to senior administration officials PresidentTrump has chosen Saudi Arabia as his first stop to show his commitment to improving U.S. relations with the Muslim world  and make a new beginning in the struggle against extremism. The first regional country President Obama had chosen to visit in April 2009 was Turkey where he only had words of praise for the country’s secular democracy. It was a different time, a different Turkey and a different relationship (*).

On Tuesday, President Erdogan will be in Washington for his first meeting with President Trump. According to the press statement by the White House, the two leaders will discuss how to further strengthen their countries’ bilateral relationship and deepen their cooperation to confront terrorism in all its forms.

A good number of foreign leaders have already visited Washington since Mr.Trump has moved to the White House. None of these visits started off under the shadow of an emerging crisis. However, Trump administration’s decision to arm the PYD/YPG in the fight to liberate Raqqa has drawn strong public objections from Turkey’s leadership, leading to nervous speculation regarding Turkey’s commitment to NATO, the use of Incirlik airbase and Turkey’s moving toward Russia. Beyond all that, Turkey’s leaders, sensing President Trump’s obsession with his predecessor’s legacy, have conveyed the message, through repeated statements of their disappointment with the Obama administration that this problem too had started before Mr.Trump and that they would be ready to turn the page should Washington change course.

Heads of state visits to Washington have a special public relations  aspect apart from what is discussed behind close doors. What is said to the press in the Oval Office matters because the world watches. And, President Trump’s approach to foreign relations appears to put more emphasis on personal chemistry. So, he may start the talks words of praise for President Erdogan, “America’s long-standing ally Turkey” and  underline the importance of continued cooperation between the two countries.

As for the meeting behind close doors, the Turkish side would urge their hosts, in the context of the combat against terrorism in all its forms, to refrain, from further enabling the PYD/YPG through arms deliveries and political support. They will try to assure the American side of Turkey’s determination to fight ISIS to the end. They will probably say that this has priority over Assad’s ouster from power although he and he alone is solely responsible for the tragedy of the Syrian people, three million of whom have sought refuge in Turkey. And surely, they will raise their expectations regarding Fethullah Gulen’s extradition.

By all indications Washington is unlikely to reverse the decision to arm PYD/YPG which it considers an effective military proxy in the fight against ISIS. This, as a matter of fact, is confirmation of Mr. Obama’s basic judgement regarding the inability of the moderate opposition to turn into a force to be reckoned with. In order to save the day, however, Mr. Trump would probably offer to his guest, guarantees regarding Syria’s territorial integrity and reiterate America’s commitment to support Turkey in its fight with the PKK. He may also suggest new and perhaps more visible methods of military cooperation against ISIS to show Ankara that it is not being sidelined in favor of Syria’s Kurds. And on Gulen, the President may say that Gulen is completely isolated but due process has to take its course for his extradition. To emphasize the point, Mr. Trump may even choose to refer with humility, to the court decisions blocking his executive orders on refugees.

At the outset of his presidency Mr.Trump had declared his determination to defeat “radical Islamist terrorism”. So, regardless of how he would word it, this would be his top agenda item in the talks with President Erdogan. In this connection the American side may ask Turkey to do more to publicly confront ISIS’ distorted ideology. And, as a specific request in the combat against terrorism in all its forms they may ask the Turkish side to do more to eliminate the terrorists within the so-called moderate Syrian opposition. At their latest Astana meeting, Russia, Turkey and Iran agreed on de-escalating violence in Syria. The US was represented at the meeting but was not a party to the agreement. A State Department press statement while expressing support for the agreement also voiced concerns particularly on the involvement of Iran as a so-called “guarantor.” And it said, “The opposition must also live up to its commitments, with Turkey as the guarantor, to separate from designated terrorist groups, including Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, which continue to hijack the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people for a representative and accountable government…”

It is only to be expected that President Trump will ask his Turkish counterpart to tone down its criticism of Israel, a strategic partner. He may also ask President Erdogan to be more open to reconciliation with Egypt. And no doubt, relations with Iran will be discussed. Hopefully the Turkish side would tell Mr. Trump that the region is already in turmoil and that opening another front would lead to total chaos.

All of the foregoing may sound rather conventional at a time when Ankara is  unpredictable and Washington looks very unsettled and full of surprises for visitors. But, neither Ankara nor Washington can afford a too rocky relationship with too many ups and downs. They need one another and a reasonably steady relationship. So, the uneasy, unhappy alliance will continue.


(*) President Obama and the Middle East, February 1, 2015

Turkey-US: The Uneasy Alliance, August 29, 2016























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