Trump and Erdogan face crisis in first meeting

Sunday 14/05/2017
Complicated ties. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) meets with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Ankara, last March. (Reuters)

Washington- Far from being a celebration of an alliance between their countries that dates back more than half a century, the first meeting be­tween US President Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, looks more like it will be an exercise in crisis management.
Erdogan, who is to meet with Trump during a visit May 16 to Washington, is expected to express his anger at the US president’s de­cision to arm Kurdish fighters in Syria in preparation for an attack on Raqqa, the Syrian city serving as the capital of the Islamic State (ISIS).
Turkey is accusing Washington of indirectly supporting terrorists, because a Kurdish militia playing a key role in the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is seen by Ankara as an affiliate of Kurdish re­bels fighting Ankara. Turkey’s government has also voiced frustration over what it sees as Washington’s foot-dragging in response to its extradition request for a US-based Turkish cleric blamed for last July’s failed coup.
The United States and Turkey have been NATO allies since 1952 and Turkey, which straddles the geostrategically important junc­ture between Europe and Asia, has served as a key base for the US mili­tary. The US military uses the Incir­lik Air Base in southern Turkey for attacks on ISIS positions in neighbouring Syria.
However, the strategic part­nership between them has been strained by conflicting priorities in the Syrian war. Trump wants to see a quick-and-decisive military defeat of ISIS, a goal that makes the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) a precious US partner on the ground. The YPG is the main component of the SDF.
Ankara is concerned that the Syrian Kurds are plotting to create their own state in Syria along the Turkish border and says the YPG is the Syrian arm of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a separatist rebel group that has been fighting the Turkish state since 1984.
The spat over Syria represents the deepest crisis in bilateral ties since Ankara denied Washington permis­sion to deploy US troops to attack Iraq from Turkish soil in 2003. Al­though the United States is keenly aware of Turkey’s significance as a regional player and of the risk of closer Turkish cooperation with Russia, it shows no sign of back­ing down from the move to arm the YPG. Analysts doubt that Trump and Erdogan can come to an agree­ment during their talks at the White House.
“The question now is what the US can do to limit the damage to its relations with Turkey and how far the Turks will go in demonstrating their displeasure,” said Howard Eis­senstat, an associate professor at St Lawrence University in New York.
It was unclear whether Erdogan would be mollified by US offers to compensate for Ankara’s accept­ance of the YPG role in the battle for Raqqa. News reports said Wash­ington could provide Turkey with better intelligence sharing to boost Ankara’s fight against the PKK. Other reports said Trump could give Erdogan free rein for Turkish attacks against the PKK in Iraq.
In Turkey, opposition politicians and some media called on Erdogan to cancel his visit to the United States, increasing pressure on the Turkish president.
“Erdogan has very few cards to play,” says Emre Uslu, a Turkish journalist who fled his country in 2014 and has been teaching at Vir­ginia International University in Fairfax, Virginia, near Washington. Uslu said he expected Erdogan to present Trump with a plan for a Turkish role in the Raqqa area once the fighting there was over, to prevent a re-emergence of ISIS and to keep the Kurds from expanding their territory to the west of the Euphrates River.
Erdogan sent several senior of­ficials, including his military and intelligence chiefs, to Washington for preparatory talks but the Turk­ish delegation failed to prevent the US administration’s decision to di­rectly arm the YPG. Reports said Erdogan’s aides were told by US of­ficials about the decision on May 8, one day before the move was made public.
Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag voiced disappointment about what Turkey sees as the US reluctance to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Pennsylvania-based cleric accused by Erdogan of being the mastermind of last year’s coup at­tempt. Bozdag reportedly told US Attorney General Jeff Sessions that Turkey would no longer respond to US extradition requests if the administration regarded evidence against Gulen presented by Turkey as insufficient.
Turkish dissidents in the United States say they do not expect a breakthrough for Erdogan’s extradition demand during his visit with Trump. The absence of cred­ible evidence to back up Ankara’s charge that Gulen was involved in the coup meant that the extradi­tion process could not start, said Adem Yavuz Arslan, a Turkish journalist who fled to the United States in 2014. Arslan is portrayed by pro-Erdogan media in Turkey as a high-ranking Gulen follower, something he denies.
Even if Ankara could get US courts to act, a quick decision in the Gulen case was unlikely, Arslan said via e-mail. The US judicial sys­tem “will take years to arrive [at] any result given the fact that Gulen is protected under US laws as a permanent legal resident,” he said.