A reset in US-Turkish relations proving elusive

Sunday 07/05/2017
A liability. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reviewing a guard of honour during a ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Ankara. (Reuters)

Washington - A new start in US-Turkish relations under US Presi­dent Donald Trump is proving elusive as the two countries clash over Syria and as Ankara’s relations with the Muslim Brotherhood and Ha­mas continue to irk Washington.

Trump has reached out to lead­ers of friendly Muslim countries in the Middle East to rebuild trust that eroded during the presiden­cy of Barack Obama. Observers, however, said it will be difficult to bridge US-Turkish differences dur­ing an upcoming Washington visit by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“Chances are not great,” said W. Robert Pearson, a former US ambas­sador to Turkey who is a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Wash­ington. Pearson said relations could be improved if Turkey accepted that defeating the Islamic State (ISIS) was the top priority in Syria, the United States recognised Tur­key’s security concerns at its border with Syria and Washington pledged to give Turkey a post-battle role in places where ISIS is on the defen­sive.

Efforts by the United States to bring Turkey into line had been in vain, Pearson added. Trump was taking a “calculated gamble” by inviting Erdogan for meetings May 16-17 but chances of success were slim, Pearson said.

Other analysts paint an even gloomier picture. “Erdogan is be­coming more a liability than an asset for the US efforts against the Islamic State,” said Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish lawmaker who works for the Foundation for De­fence of Democracies, a Washing­ton think-tank. Both Erdogan and Trump have supported creating safe zones for civilians inside Syria but it remains unclear which forces would police such zones.

The fight against ISIS is Trump’s priority in Syria, where the US military has been assembling a pre­dominantly Kurdish fighting force to attack the jihadists’ headquar­ters in Raqqa. Turkey sees the main Syrian Kurd faction as terrorists and is calling on the United States to end cooperation with the group. Turkish air strikes on Syrian Kurds in April sparked an angry response from Washington. Erdogan said ad­ditional attacks were possible and announced he would raise the issue of US support for the Syrian Kurds during his Washington visit.

“Since Trump is in urgent need of a success story, it is doubtful that he will continue to tolerate Erdogan’s attempts to derail the anti-IS coali­tion,” Erdemir said via e-mail, using another acronym for ISIS. “It is not easy for Trump and Erdogan to set­tle their differences and find a mo­dus vivendi during their upcoming Washington meeting.”

The only Muslim-majority mem­ber of NATO and a direct neighbour of Syria, Turkey is a valued ally for the United States. Trump congratu­lated Erdogan on his victory in the April 16 constitutional referen­dum giving him more power, even though the opposition in Ankara said the vote was rigged.

Unlike the Obama administra­tion, the Trump government has not placed human rights high on its international agenda. US me­dia have portrayed Trump as a president who likes strong and sometimes autocratic leaders but those alleged sympathies have not stopped other US government agen­cies from pointing out rights issues. In a marked contrast to Trump, the US State Department warned Turkey after the referendum “to protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of all its citizens.”

Kemal Kirisci, a Turkey expert at the Brookings Institution in Wash­ington, said Ankara should expect US warnings about human rights to continue. “The institutions of the United States will keep stressing the importance of the rule of law,” Kirisci said. “The news from Turkey does not appear to suggest that Tur­key is a cradle of the rule of law.”

Washington also frowns on the Erdogan government’s close rela­tions with the Muslim Brother­hood and the anti-Israel Hamas group. “Erdogan’s Islamist policies at home and abroad are on a colli­sion course with Trump’s commit­ment to fight Islamism. Erdogan is unlikely to cut his ties either to the Muslim Brotherhood or Hamas,” said Erdemir.

Another source of friction is Er­dogan’s demand that the United States extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish Muslim cleric who lives in Pennsylvania and is accused by An­kara of masterminding last year’s coup attempt in Turkey. When Trump took office in January, hopes were high in Turkey that Washing­ton might move swiftly on the case, following perceived foot-dragging under Obama.

Kirisci, however, said Ankara’s hopes could be frustrated. “I don’t see any immediate movement on the Gulen issue,” he said. “Whatev­er was valid under the Obama gov­ernment will remain true: This is a decision to be taken by the courts.”

Turkey’s efforts may have been complicated by news reports about pro-Turkish lobbying work by Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn. US media have also reported that Rudy Gi­uliani, a former Trump adviser, met with Erdogan in his capacity as a lawyer for Reza Zarrab, a Turkish- Iranian businessman held in New York on charges of violating sanc­tions against Iran.

The Flynn and Zarrab incidents have created an impression with some Americans that Turkey is trying to meddle in US domestic affairs. “The media coverage is al­most putting Turkey in the same league as Russia,” Kirisci said. This could make it harder for Trump to act in the Gulen case, he added.