Erdogan to appeal to Trump as US sanctions probe intensifies

September 17, 2017
Latest twist. A file picture shows Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and former economy minister Zafer Caglayan in Ankara. (Reuters)

Washington - As Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, prepares to meet Don­ald Trump in New York in the coming days amid increasing tensions between Tur­key and the US, analysts say the en­counter is unlikely to keep relations between the two countries from sliding into a deeper crisis.

Erdogan and the US president have agreed to meet on the side­lines of the UN General Assembly in New York after Erdogan’s sched­uled arrival there on September 19. Coming after Erdogan’s visit to the White House in May and their joint participation in the G20 sum­mit in Germany in July, it will be the third face-to-face meeting be­tween the two presidents. The US and Turkey have been NATO allies and strategic partners for decades, but the two sides are showing signs of increasing frustration with each other.

In the latest twist, the Turkish leader was angered by prosecutors in New York seeking the arrest of Zafer Caglayan, a former Turkish economy minister, on charges of violating sanctions against Iran. Caglayan and Reza Zarrab, an Ira­nian-born Turkish businessman facing trial in New York for illicit gold trade benefiting Iran, are key figures in corruption allegations against the Erdogan government that first surfaced in 2013.

Some observers say the Zarrab and Caglayan cases could un­earth fresh corruption allegations against Erdogan’s inner circle. “The Reza Zarrab case could now ruin the Turkish government polit­ically and financially,” says Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish lawmak­er who is an analyst at the Founda­tion for Defense of Democracies, a think-tank in Washington. “Er­dogan and colleagues are deeply concerned about the new charges,” Erdemir told The Arab Weekly in emailed remarks.

The Turkish president, his gov­ernment and their supporters say the charges in the US are po­litically motivated. Erdogan has said the move by the US judiciary “stinks.” Government spokesman Bekir Bozdag said the accusations against Caglayan amounted to a coup attempt against Turkey. And columnist Kurtulus Tayiz, writing in the pro-government Turkish daily Aksam, accused the United States of using the Zarrab case as a tool to “blackmail” Turkey into ac­cepting the emergence of a Kurdish state in northern Syria.

Bozdag’s statement on Septem­ber 11 suggested that Ankara re­gards the New York investigations as a result of the influence of US-based Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen on American institutions. The US judicial system was being “used” by the Gulen movement, Bozdag said. Erdogan says Gulen orchestrated last year’s coup at­tempt in Turkey and demands his extradition, but there has been no action by US authorities so far.

The US State Department re­jected Bozdag’s accusation. “I’m going to say three words: That is ridiculous,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters in Washington.

Erdogan would like Trump to in­tervene in the New York cases even though the US president is barred by the constitution from interfer­ing in the judiciary, said Howard Ei­ssenstat, a Turkey expert at St Law­rence University in New York state. “I think he still holds out hope that he can reach out to Trump and cut a deal,” Eissenstat said by email. “I don’t think he understands the limits on Trump’s power.”

The Zarrab and Caglayan cases are not the only sources of friction. Criticism of Turkey has become a theme in the US Congress in the run-up to Erdogan’s New York vis­it. Senior members of the House of Representatives have asked Secre­tary of State Rex Tillerson to warn Erdogan against any repetition of the violence that marred the Turk­ish president’s visit to Washington in May. Last month, a US grand jury indicted 19 people, among them 15 Turkish security officials, in con­nection with a brawl between Er­dogan’s bodyguards and demon­strators in Washington. “Another incident – even a minor one – would be exceedingly costly for Turkish- US relations,” Eissenstat wrote.

US concerns regarding Erdogan’s New York visit come as deep-seat­ed problems continue to haunt US-Turkish relations. Unable to solve his long-standing row with the US over Washington’s support for Kurdish rebels fighting the Is­lamic State (ISIS) in northern Syria, Erdogan is signalling that he is pre­pared to seek closer ties to Russia. A week before his trip to the UN in New York, the Turkish leader said his government had finalised a deal with Moscow to buy a modern Rus­sian anti-missile system, the S-400. The decision goes against NATO policy that encouraged member states to buy weapons systems that can be integrated with other re­sources in the defence bloc.

Erdogan said Turkey had already made a down payment for the Rus­sian anti-missile system and that Russian President Vladimir Putin and he were acting with “deter­mination” on the S-400 issue. The Turkish leader hinted that criticism from the West would not change his decision.

“Nobody has the right to discuss the Turkish republic’s independ­ence principles or independent decisions about its defence indus­try,” Erdogan told Turkish report­ers on a return flight from a visit to Kazakhstan, according to Turkish news reports on September 12.

If the Turkish president relies on appealing to Trump personally to correct what he sees as negative developments in Turkish-US rela­tions, he is likely to see his efforts fail, said Erdemir. “His continual appeals to Trump are futile,” Er­demir wrote about Erdogan. With­out a complete “U-turn” by Turkey, ties “will continue to deteriorate,” he added.