A reset in US-Turkish relations proving elusive
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.