Trump and Erdogan: Will It Be a Short Honeymoon?
Trump’s electoral victory was viewed with cautious enthusiasm in Ankara, which looks forward to a reset of the United States – Tukey axis, after the policies of the previous Obama Administration contradicted several of the interests of the current Turkish political leadership.
Even now, with the entire roster of Donald Trump’s cabinet known, the particulars of his foreign policy remain unpredictable, especially with regards to a region he is likely unfamiliar with and whose specificities he is likely to misunderstand. Many of Trump’s speeches on the campaign trail have been self-contradictory with regards to the region. For instance, he supported working with Iran to address the Daesh menace and then followed up on this with hints that he wished to renegotiate or even suspend the nuclear deal.
His pragmatism will likely lead him to shuffling concerns about human rights and freedom of the press in Turkey to a distant second place over the quest for a constructive dialogue with President Erdogan.
With this in mind, we may ask ourselves: Will there be a short honeymoon between the two?
The particulars of his foreign policy remain unpredictable, especially with regards to a region he is likely unfamiliar with and whose specificities he is likely to misunderstand.
If President Trump wants to “Make America Great Again”, his path will take him towards economic protectionism which would affect, among others, Turkey’s iron and steel exports to the US, a blow for the Turkish state, whose American market accounts for a quarter of its exports. In particular, the metallurgy sector is a centerpiece of perceived American industrial decline (also in employment), so Trump has a political constituency for whom the issue of steel and iron imports has particular significance. American investment in Turkey might also diminish which would amplify the uncertainty hanging over the Turkish economy since the summer of 2016.
In the short and medium term, Turkey has two “great expectations” from the new Administration – the extradition of the cleric Fetullah Gülen and the withdrawal of American support for the Kurds of Syria. Regarding Gülen, Trump’s National Security Adviser Gen. Michael Flynn sent out encouraging signals, at first glance. In December 2016, The Hill published a piece written by Michael Flynn titled “Our Ally Turkey is in Crisis and Needs Our Support”. He criticized the attitude of then-President Barack Obama, whom he accused of marginalizing an important ally like Turkey. Flynn sees in Ankara a principal actor on whose cooperation hinges the White House’s efforts to address the difficult situation in Syria. Of course, Turkey’s internal stability is paramount, therefore Flynn sees the extradition of Gülen as a foregone conclusion. He wrote:
“Gülen portrays himself as a moderate, but he is in fact a radical Islamist. He has publicly boasted about his ‘soldiers’ waiting for his orders to do whatever he directs them to do. If he were in reality a moderate, he would not be in exile, nor would he excite the animus of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government”.
But the Gülen issue is much more complex than meets the eye, and the will of the White House is not the only factor in its ultimate solution. A judicial decision regarding his involvement in the 2016 failed coup attempt would be required to give everything the necessary legality. Finally, the Turkish government itself would have to support its accusations by marshalling convincing evidence linking the cleric to the events of July 2016, which has not happened so far.
The Kurdish question is much more complicated, and President Trump must show significant political maturity as a leader to avoid escalating tensions with Turkey. Even though Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, during his Senate confirmation hearings in January 2017, that Washington and Ankara must cooperate unconditionally to solves the crisis in Syria, this was not equivalent to a withdrawal of support for the Kurds. A relevant event in this regard is US CENTCOM’s explicit posting on Twitter, as the Tillerson confirmation hearings were taking place, of a negation of the links between the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the PKK. In other words, the Kurds fighting in the SDF cannot be accused of terrorism as confederates of the PKK, which provoked a strong response from the Turkish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mevlüt Çavușoğlu, affirming an impending sense of betrayal in his country by its strategic American partner.
The symbolism of going from protecting Gülen to prosecuting him with the full force of American law would have significant value and shore up Erdogan’s internal strength, as well as send a strong message to Ankara.
Compounding the issue and leading us into a paradox of conflicting expectations, the election of Donald Trump was greeted with enthusiasm not only in Ankara, but also among the Kurds of Syria and Iraq, who felt buoyed by the American leader’s frequent campaign references for the right to self-determination of the Kurdish people. In Erbil, capital of Iraq’s autonomous region of Kurdistan, restaurants and newborn children were given the name of the American President.
One thing is certain. The Trump Administration cannot act to stabilize the Middle East without Turkish cooperation, which means that resetting bilateral relations will have to take its difficult demands into account. Even if the Justice Department were to oppose the extradition of Fetullah Gülen, it is very possible that the Trump Administration could lean heavily on Gülen’s operations in the US, by closing some of its charter schools for various irregularities regarding the payment of taxes and the legality of its work visas for Gülenist teachers (the “Cleric of the Poconos”, as he is referred to in the American press, is the largest private operator of charter schools in the US). The symbolism of going from protecting Gülen to prosecuting him with the full force of American law would have significant value and shore up Erdogan’s internal strength, as well as send a strong message to Ankara.
A scenario where the US tries to placate Ankara with the least amount of cost to its own interests could also involve supporting the proposed changes to the Turkish Constitution, while overlooking the ebb of democracy in the country, thereby consolidating a competitive-authoritarian system. A Sultan who bring stability will likely be well received by Trump White House.
Regarding Syria, Turkey will have to cultivate a channel of communication with the US in order for it to be present during the post-conflict negotiations to defend its interests, and the US will likely court Turkey to give Russia as little space to maneuver as possible. Moreover, Trump will try to coalesce the pursuit of the interests of Sunni states under the American foreign policy umbrella in order to better ensure the security of Israel and to check the geopolitical advances of Iran. This might put pressure on the circumspect relations between Ankara and Tehran. We should not forget that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson claimed, during the hearings, that the next step for the US after the annihilation of Daesh will be the fight against Al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood and the groups supported by Iran, such as Hezbollah. Weakening the Muslim Brotherhood would contravene the interests of Turkey in asserting a leadership role for the Muslim world. Those same ambitions also contravene Trump’s interests regarding the much-opposed (as discriminatory) “extreme vetting” of Muslim immigrants to his country, which is a proxy for a shutdown of Muslim immigration. The Palestinian problem would also gain new urgency should the US go forward with the relocation of its Israeli Embassy to Jerusalem.
In conclusion, there are just as many elements of common interest for Turkey to rebuild its relationship with the US as there are points of divergence, and the ultimate outcome hinges on the capacity of the two sides to interact and negotiate bilaterally for a workable compromise.