Trump unlikely to find much Turkish delight in talks with Erdogan
London - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had said he was looking forward to turning a new page in US-Turkish relations now that Donald Trump is in charge in Washington, but, as relations have nosedived, the meeting between the two presidents may be more about closing the book.
Erdogan’s remarks, made at the annual Istanbul summit of the Atlantic Council think-tank at the end of April, came the same week that Turkish warplanes targeted forces of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia, the United States’ most effective ally in northern Syria against the jihadists of the Islamic State (ISIS).
The attack, which killed 20 YPG fighters, was condemned by Washington, as was a raid against an area of northern Iraq the same week in which five Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga were unintended victims.
On May 10, Erdogan threatened to escalate military action against US allies in Syria after the Trump administration’s decision to provide the YPG with heavy weapons and high-tech equipment for an escalating offensive against Raqqa, the ISIS capital in Syria, despite Ankara’s protests at arming what it considers to be a terrorist organisation.
The US State Department said the incidents had been raised at the highest level with the Turkish government. Not only were the raids not fully coordinated with the anti- ISIS coalition — or not coordinated at all — they had put US soldiers on the ground at risk, the State Department said.
The Syrian Kurds are demanding US-enforced no-fly zones to protect them from Turkish attacks, while threatening to halt their advance on Raqqa if the Turkish strikes continue.
The diplomatic spat over the raids provides the unpromising backdrop to Erdogan’s first meeting with Trump in Washington in mid- May.
Using his Istanbul speech to set out the agenda for his talks with the US president, Erdogan called on the United States to halt its support for the YPG and its political wing, the Democratic Union Party (PYD).
“Under the pretext of the fight against [ISIS], we will not be tolerating any cooperation with another terrorist organisation,” Erdogan said. Saying that such cooperation undermined good US-Turkish relations, he added: “We cannot be holding hands with a terrorist organisation to defeat another terrorist organisation.”
Erdogan said he planned to tell Trump that focusing the fight only on ISIS would be a mistake.
The dispute has given rise to the phenomenon of US special forces deploying on the ground to act as a buffer between the Kurdish fighters and the forces of a NATO ally, Turkey.
US-Turkish relations cooled during the Obama administration because of the reluctance of the former president to take action against the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria as well as the continuing presence in the United States of cleric Fethullah Gulen, accused by Turkey of being behind the failed 2016 coup against Erdogan.
The Turkish leader may have been looking forward to a more solid engagement from Trump, particularly after the US president’s order launching missile strikes in retaliation for Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons on April 4.
Erdogan may even have hoped he could exploit Trump’s apparent preference for one-on-one deal-making with other world leaders to sway US policies.
Trump controversially called to congratulate Erdogan on winning the recent national referendum that greatly expanded his presidential powers, a sentiment that did not appear to be shared elsewhere in the US administration.
So, the Washington visit may prove to be more confrontational than conciliatory.
While Erdogan is in the US capital, the State and Defence departments are likely to try to block the White House from making statements or taking initiatives that would weaken the US-Kurdish alliance.
The broader US administration and its military chiefs are relying on the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), dominated by the YPG, to spearhead the final assault to oust ISIS from Raqqa.
Erdogan argues, however, that if the United States and Turkey joined forces they could turn Raqqa into the graveyard of ISIS.
The reality on the ground is that Turkey — focused on its fight against the YPG and its own Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) rebels — is proving more of a hindrance than a help.
The US-backed SDF, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias, announced on May 10 that it had captured Tabqa, a strategic strongpoint 40km from Raqqa. That advance was only made possible with the active support of the Americans.
For the time being, the Americans are standing up to the Turkish bluster and pressuring Erdogan to suspend further threatened air strikes against the YPG.
Erdogan, for his part, has expressed “sadness” at television footage showing US forces operating alongside the Kurds. Ankara has since threatened more air strikes unless the United States backs down.
Erdogan’s pitch to Trump will be that the United States would be better off relying on its Turkish ally than on a doubtful alliance with terrorists. He may also portray the US policy of backing the YPG as part of a failed Obama strategy that Trump should now overturn.
How Trump responds to Erdogan’s blandishments and his increasingly aggressive behaviour is, as ever, anybody’s guess.