Turkey’s high hopes over Trump may come crashing down
Istanbul - The Turks have a saying: “The one who arrives makes you miss the one who has gone.” While many in Turkish government circles could barely disguise their glee at the departure of Barack Obama and the arrival of Donald Trump as US president, there are signs they may come to rue their initial enthusiasm.
Turkish leaders were infuriated by the Obama administration’s refusal to bypass extradition processes and simply hand over Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gulen after Ankara blamed him for the failed Turkish coup last July.
US support for Syrian Kurds fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria also angered many Turks who fear it will lead to the establishment of a hostile Kurdish statelet allied to Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) rebels fighting for a homeland inside Turkey.
“Obama… left office in Washington as one of the least successful presidents in the history of the United States,” concluded Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s foreign policy adviser Saadet Oruc in a column for the pro-government Star newspaper.
So it was with some hope that Trump’s election was greeted in Turkey. Anti-Trump demonstrations were a “disrespect to democracy”, said Erdogan, who also praised the new US president for “putting in his place” a CNN reporter at his first news conference after his inauguration.
“Both Erdogan and Trump represent a nationalist, nativist, populist battle cry against the global liberal order, and this creates common ground between the two sides,” Mustafa Akyol wrote in Al-Monitor.
Thin-skinned populists with a predilection for suing critics, Erdogan and Trump may just hit it off. Either that or the two strongmen may become bitter rivals. Politics and national interests will probably decide.
After the initial euphoria, a new realism has settled into Turkish attitudes towards Trump, especially after his executive order banning entry into the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries and suspending a programme to admit Syrian refugees.
Even so, reaction to what has become known as the “Muslim ban” from Erdogan, who sees himself as a champion of the Muslim world and whose country hosts close to 3 million Syrian refugees, has been muted.
Turkey’s main concerns appear to be US policy regarding the Syrian Kurds — US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called them “our greatest allies” in Syria during his confirmation hearings — and whether US authorities agree to Turkey’s request to extradite Gulen, a former Erdogan ally, to face charges of masterminding the botched coup.
“What is going to be Trump’s attitude to the Middle East? Because right now the Middle East is boiling over,” Erdogan said before the ban was put in place. “Now some statements regarding the Middle East are coming to our ears and if these statements are true, they are disturbing.”
Erdogan-watchers saw that as a reference to Syria. While Trump said he “will absolutely do safe zones in Syria” — an idea touted by Turkey almost since the conflict began in 2011 — Turkish leaders fear Trump might establish them in areas controlled by the Kurds. That would lend Kurdish aspirations legitimacy and boost their chances of consummating their autonomy.
“Seen from Ankara, Washington’s support for the Syrian Kurds is an expression of hostility against Turkey,” Halil Karaveli wrote in The Turkey Analyst.
“The most powerful country in the Middle East is Turkey and the determining country is Turkey,” Erdogan said. “I think that it would not be right for humanity, for our world, if those who have no relevance or interest in the Middle East, to make a very historical mistake and make decisions regarding the Middle East.”
Erdogan said he sought to meet with Trump as soon as possible but, despite the US president having called several world leaders, there was no White House acknowledgement of a call with the leader of an important NATO ally. Turkey hosts both US troops and nuclear missiles and is a member of the Group of 20 forum of major economies.
Whenever that conversation takes place, Erdogan said he would also bring up the matter of Gulen and the evidence Turkey has given US authorities to support its extradition request.
“We gave them 85 dossiers and will ask what has happened to them,” Erdogan said. “Our wish is that this task is concluded as soon as possible.”
For Turkey, much will depend on the outcome of the extradition proceedings. In a country that has imprisoned 40,000 people on coup-related charges and holds more journalists in its jails than any other, the US verdict is likely to be seen as a deliberate snub if it goes the wrong way.
While Erdogan’s supporters have railed against Trump’s policies towards Muslims, the Turkish president has chosen to refrain from criticism and even his ministers’ admonitions have been mild.
What must be disturbing for Erdogan, though, is that one of the first foreign leaders Trump spoke with on the telephone was Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Relations between Turkey and Egypt have been frosty since Sisi overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013.
Erdogan, an Islamist who sees himself as a protector of Sunni Muslims, was close to the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt and has given refuge to some of its leaders. He has also hosted Hamas and several Syrian Islamist rebel groups.
A bill before the US Congress to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation would sour relations with Turkey, as would the realisation of Trump’s pledge to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
While Obama is reported to have gone from seeing Erdogan as a moderate Muslim leader to an authoritarian, his administration expended great diplomatic effort to keep the Turkish president on side and even allow US warplanes to use Turkish air bases to fly sorties in support of Kurdish forces fighting ISIS in Syria.
Quiet diplomacy though is not the Trump hallmark and his administration may have its work cut out to meet Turkish expectations in the Middle East and Turkey may look back wistfully to the days of Obama.