Erdogan hopes for a new negotiation process with Trump
The United States’ choice of Donald Trump for president is by far the most powerful game changer in the political algorithms of international politics. It places Turkey at the epicentre of the prospective effects of the shattering vote.
Trump’s victory is the crowning moment of the rise of populism, isolationism and divisive stances, which places the United States on the same page with other countries eclipsed by the trend of elected authoritarianism.
That Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not immediately join those who congratulated Trump may be a harbinger of a new era between Ankara and Washington.
“I want to interpret it (the election result) favourably. I hope for a new beginning,” Erdogan said coldly, hours after the declared victory of Trump.
Erdogan clearly hopes for an improved negotiation process with Trump. His office later issued a statement, saying that Erdogan called the US president-elect and underlined his desire for a new chapter.
Nothing odd about this. Problems are so intense that not even a transactional partnership functions properly between the two allies. Over the past three or four years, a pattern of deterioration of the relations was clearly noted.
Rifts have deepened; major disagreements on regional issues — Syria, Iraq, the Kurds’ role in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) — and Erdogan’s open political flirtation with Russia have strained the military cooperation to the extremes.
That only 48 hours before the American vote, Ankara was visited hastily by the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff to a crisis meeting is quite telling. The Americans made clear to the Turks that Kurdish combat troops will be key in the assault on Raqqa, with large-scale weaponry delivered to them, turning down Turkish demands exclude Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) which Ankara sees as the Syrian arm of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that is fighting for Kurdish self-rule in Turkey.
This strategic choice of Kurds, along with other elements alienating Ankara, both in Syria and Iraq, infuriated Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, leading to Turkish accusations that President Barack Obama’s administration was aiding and abetting terror. However, it is known that Trump also has a rather solid view for further cooperation with the Kurds in the region.
Another item on the agenda is related to the botched coup in July, which the Turkish president’s men accuse Fethullah Gulen, a cleric who lives in self-exile in Pennsylvania, and the United States of being behind.
Erdogan at every public appearance repeats the demand that Gulen be extradited to Turkey. In an initial reaction to the US election result, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, Erdogan’s right-hand man, said: “I call the new president openly to extradite the head of this terror organisation. If you do it rapidly, this will be a new start, a new page in our relations.”
What hard evidence has been offered by Ankara to Washington remains murky, as Americans have repeatedly referred to a “due legal process”. How Trump will react to this pressure is difficult to predict.
What more than anything else explains the cold-hearted words of Erdogan is an issue that has occupied his mind for nine months, placed as the sharpest thorn in Turkish-American relations. It is known as the Zarrab case, named after Reza Zarrab, an Iranian-born gold trader with Turkish citizenship arrested in Florida.
He, his brother and several others stand charged of conspiring to conduct hundreds of millions of dollars in financial transactions for the Iranian government or other entities to evade US sanctions. In 2013, he was detained by authorities in Turkey as part of a wide-ranging corruption investigation of businessmen with close ties to Erdogan, but later released.
Erdogan had the Turkish leg of the graft cases closed by brute intervention, having its prosecutors jailed, but is apparently helpless as he and his close relatives’ names are reported to be included in the case unfolding in a federal court in New York. Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag visited his counterpart in Washington and demanded that Zarrab be sent to Turkey “because he is a Turkish citizen”.
The Zarrab case, with possible legal ramifications for Erdogan, will remain at the epicentre of the bilateral agenda.
The upcoming Erdogan-Trump dialogue will be very personal because here are two leaders who take almost everything personally, with a lot of common features.
Defiant to established rules, impulsive and temperamental, populist and patriarchal, intolerant of dissent and extremely business-minded, they will give their personal interests a high priority.
It may lead them to speak the same language but not necessarily for the better of overall conditions gnawing at the Middle East. One major conflict is Trump’s well-known pledges to limit and screen Muslim immigrants which enraged Erdogan.
The future of Turkish-American relations is uncertain, but all the cards will again be on the table for rather undiplomatic horse trading when Erdogan and Trump shake hands.