Turkish-American Relations At Crossroads
When President Donald Trump received President Recep Erdogan on Tuesday at the White House, his legendary deal-making prowess was be on trial.
Trump has not been in a tearing hurry to receive Erdogan. During the first 100 days of his presidency, Trump received the leaders of Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Jordan (twice), Iraq and Palestine. Yet, none of them belongs to a Nato member country and or is a crucial “swing” state in Trump’s messianic war against ISIS, as Turkey is.
Could it be Erdogan’s dalliance with ISIS in the past that put a dampened Trump’s enthusiasm for this “strongman”? But then, Saudi Arabia too was promoting al-Qaeda groups in Syria.
Or, was it Erdogan’s growing friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin that discouraged Trump? But then, Trump greeted Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in the White House as an old ally.
Clearly, the only good reason could be that Trump deliberately decided that there is a time for everything – even for meeting Erdogan. Trump thoughtfully let the Turkish referendum on constitutional reform run its course first. Trump now has the answer.
Erdogan extracted a “yes” vote in the referendum alright, and is set to concentrate executive power in his hands, but, paradoxically, he is a wounded man, having lost the referendum vote in all major cities, especially Istanbul, which has been his citadel. Erdogan barely scraped through.
On the other hand, an invigorated German-French axis following the resounding election victory of Emmanuel Macron means that a consolidated EU pressure is building on Erdogan to curb his authoritarian drift. Erdogan knows that a rupture of Turkey’s ties to the West would have grave economic and political consequences.
Meanwhile, if Erdogan had calculated that he could play off the US and Russia, that is also not to be. Trump simply outflanked him by opening a line to Putin regarding Syria before he met Erdogan.
Erdogan has been naïve. The Kremlin won’t risk annoying Trump. Détente with the US is an overriding concern for Russia.
All things taken into account, therefore, Trump did the right thing to meet Erdogan in the fullness of time. Trump’s decision to sign the executive order allowing the Pentagon to transfer heavy weapons to the Kurdish militia on the eve of Erdogan’s visit underscores it.
Trump is looking for a quick victory in Raqqa. The liberation of Raqqa will be prime time news in America. Who’d pay attention anymore to “a showboat” such as James Comey when the pictures are beamed from Raqqa into the living rooms of America?
The Pentagon commanders estimate that the Kurdish militia with US air support will liberate Raqqa successfully and swiftly. Indeed, latest reports suggest that the Kurdish militia has reached within two kilometers of Raqqa city limits.
Simply put, Erdogan who was hoping to dissuade Trump from aligning with the Kurds will now have to discuss concerns over post-liberation Raqqa. The ground beneath Erdogan’s feet has dramatically shifted.
He still can resort to strategic defiance by resorting to air strikes against the Kurdish militia, similar to the attacks staged by the Turkish air force on April 25 on the town of Sinjar (Iraqi Kurdistan) and on targets in the Karachok Mountains (northeastern Syria).
However, the US and Russian deployments to the Kurdish cantons in northern Syrian show that both Washington and Moscow have factored in such a possibility and have a tacit understanding that only their physical presence might act as a deterrent against Erdogan’s adventurism.
This opens up a tantalizing prospect – US and Russia having an unwritten division of labor to “tame” Erdogan. The Russian diplomacy has shown masterly skill in shepherding Turkish policies away from covert backing for extremist groups toward new directions that help to end the fighting in Syria. The Russia-US cooperation in Syria drastically curbs Erdogan’s elbow room.
What are Erdogan’s options? Trump has put him out of business since the US is no longer using Turkish proxies to push the “regime change” agenda in Syria. American retrenchment affects Saudi and Qatari policies, too.
Besides, Erdogan will be wary of provoking Trump. Apart from the discord over the extradition of Islamist preacher Fetullah Gulen, the US is keeping under detention the top executive of Halkbank Mehmet Hakan Attila whom it implicates in the sensational criminal case (which is also linked to Erdogan’s immediate family members) regarding abuse of the US financial system to conduct fraudulent transactions on behalf of Iranian entities.
Will Erdogan retaliate by shutting down Incirlik air base? Such a possibility exists, but remains unlikely. At any rate, Washington is focused on the liberation of Raqqa, and access to Incirlik is a secondary issue at the moment.
The bottom line is that Erdogan is running out of options and may be coming under pressure, finally, to (re)open his own channels to the Kurdish groups. Indeed, Turkey got along well with the leadership of Iraqi Kurdistan and a similar deal can be worked out with Syrian Kurds.
Being the consummate pragmatist that he is, Erdogan may well decide to pick up the threads of the peace process with the Kurds from where he summarily left them in 2015 due to compulsions over forthcoming electoral battles culminating in the March referendum to transform Turkey into a presidential system.
Significantly, Erdogan has reacted with extraordinary restraint to the Pentagon move to arm Kurds in Syria. He is mulling over his options. Trump can encourage him to seek a deal with Kurds. It may not be the mother of all deals, but a historic deal nonetheless, which will go a long way to stabilizing Syria and the wider Middle East.