Trump unlikely to find much Turkish delight in talks with Erdogan

Sunday 14/05/2017
Threatening escalation. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gestures as he gives a speech during the Atlantic Council summit in Istanbul, last April. (AFP)

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.