European Affairs

aliaslanTurkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had a tall order for his first trip to Washington: To instill an image that he is a respected world leader despite his authoritarianism; to foster a personal relationship with the new US President Donald Trump, and hopefully, garner a few concessions on several contentious issues which have been straining bilateral relations. Those issues include the US decision to arm Kurdish fighters in Syria for anti-ISIL Raqqa operation, obstacles in the extradition request for prominent Turkish dissident Fethullah Gulen, and Erdogan’s keen interest in shutting down the U.S. government’s Iran sanctions violation case against Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab. Turkey’s strongman can be happy with the warm welcome by President Trump at the White House, but so far there has been no indications of any concrete accomplishments on these priority issues. 

Shortly before Erdogan’s visit and over strong objections from Ankara,  President Donald Trump has approved the supplying arms to Kurdish fighters with the People’s Protection Unit (YPG) in Syria to support an operation to take back the city of Raqqa from the Islamic State. Erdogan sent his three closest national security advisors, intelligence chief Hakan Fidan, military Chief of Staff General Hulusi Akar and presidential spokesman Ambassador Ibrahim Kalin to Washington a week ahead. They even met with President Trump, but were unable to  achieve a course change.  Trump preferred going with the advice of his military planners at the Pentagon who see Kurdish YPG fighters as an essential component of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which also comprise certain Arab resistance elements. The Kurds have so far proven effective on the ground, providing a key supplement to US air operations in Sinjar, Kobane and Tel Abyad.  

Since the Turkish government’s decision to deny opening a northern front for American ground troops during 2003 invasion of Iraq, some in the Pentagon, most especially the Central Command, hold a grudge against Ankara. Feelings are mutual in Ankara. Despite Trump’s flattering references to Turkish heroism in the Korean War seven decades ago, Ankara is no longer seen as a fully trustable ally in American military and national security circles. Erdogan’s post-putsch purge of nearly half of the generals and admirals, many of whom had been working partners with Americans at NATO, also undermined U.S. confidence. 

From the Turkish perspective, however,  the US decision to arm YPG is a blow to counter terrorism efforts. Ankara sees YPG as a Syrian affiliate of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), designated as a terrorist organization by both the US and Turkey, and which has engaged in a low density civil war in Turkey for decades fighting for Kurdish political causes. The US government’s actions are viewed as  hypocritical, because they overlook YPG ties with the PKK. Ankara maintains that arms delivered to Syrian Kurds could find their way to the PKK and used against Turkish forces, despite contrary assurances from the US. Furthermore, the Turkish side is worried that Syrian Kurds who enjoy US military and diplomatic support, could seek autonomy, if not independence. 

The Trump counters that US cooperation with Syrian Kurds is tactical and transactional, rather than a strategic preference of Kurds over Turkey. After all, notwithstanding unconventional and growing ties with Russia, Turkey is still a NATO ally. Ankara’s longstanding position is based on the deeply rooted fear of an independent Kurdish state carved out of Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey.  Many domestic, diplomatic and military actions of this and previous Turkish governments have been informed by fear of Turkey’s partition due to Kurdish aspirations. Turkey’s recent agreement with Russia and Iran falls into this category. 

“We support Turkey in the fight against terror and terror groups like ISIS and the PKK, and to ensure they have no safe quarter, the terror groups,” President Trump said reassuringly. But, in the eyes of Erdogan, not only ISIS and the PKK, but also many of his peaceful political opponents are also ‘terrorists’. 

Indeed, under the pretext of undemocratic anti-terrorism laws, Ankara declared the faith-based movement led by Fethullah Gulen a terrorist organization after they joined opposition ranks several years ago. A considerable portion of the political persecution especially in the aftermath of failed coup has been directed towards Gulen-led ‘Hizmet’ movement. Unlike Erdogan, Trump did not mention Gulen or his group publicly, despite intense pressure from Ankara to treat them as terrorists. Neither the Obama nor the Trump administrations has acted on Erdogan’s request to extradite Fethullah Gulen, who is a legal permanent resident in US, contending that there is a lack of evidence regarding his alleged involvement in the coup.  

The White House did issue a statement saying, “President Trump reiterated the commitment of the United States to the security of our NATO ally Turkey and the need to work together to confront terrorism in all its forms” at his meeting with Erdogan. Which ‘forms’ of terrorism was not clear. 

Due to legal constraints and close media attention, Gulen’s extradition would be an extraordinary move, particularly as the White House finds itself under intense scrutiny over former NSC Director Michael Flynn’s former role as a foreign agent for Erdogan’s government. Helping Erdogan in subtler ways, such as ratcheting up legal pressure on pro-Gulen entities in the US, might present itself as a more viable option, according to some observers.

And finally there is the thorny case of Iranian-Turkish businessman, Reza Zarrab, who is on trial in the Southern District of New York for allegedly undermining US sanctions against Iran with the help of AKP officials. New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a close Trump ally, is part of Zarrab’s defense team. Zarrab was a central figure in 2013 corruption scandal which implicated four members of Erdogan’s cabinet and others. That case was eventually covered up in Turkey when Erdogan turned judiciary and law enforcement upside down with the purges and shuttering of independent media.  New York Times reported Guiliani and his colleague Michael Mukasey held a ‘secret’ meeting with Erdogan in Turkey in late February regarding the Zarrab case.  In their court filing, Giuliani and Mukasey said “senior officials” in the U.S. and Turkey “remain receptive” to a deal that could promote the security of the U.S. Reaching a Zarrab deal was one of the most important agenda items for Erdogan in his meeting with Trump, however no official statement has been made on the topic. 

Despite growing concerns about Turkey’s authoritarian path, the only human rights issue raised publicly by the White House during Erdogan’s visit was the incarceration of American Pastor Andrew Brunson. The same day his White House meetings took place, Erdogan’s guards and supporters were involved in violent clashes with peaceful protesters who had gathered in front of the Turkish Ambassador’s residence. Erdogan’s guards had displayed similar conduct at a Brookings event in his March 2016 visit to Washington. The latest incident drew wider attention and condemnation by US government and lawmakers. Senator John McCain even suggested “throwing the Turkish ambassador out” as a response. 

While Presidents Trump and Erdogan want to have a good relationship, both leaders are constrained by conflicting international and domestic interests. Erdogan won his Oval Office photos with the leader of world’s most powerful nation, sending a message to his domestic and global audience that he is a legitimate and formidable leader. For Trump, the visit fits his own emerging presidential narrative and underlines his commitment to the fight against ISIL. For these overtly transactional leaders, that’s a start.   

Ali H. Aslan is a Turkish journalist, based in Washington, DC.  He is former Washington correspondent for Zaman newspaper.