Why Trump cancelled his G20 formal meeting with Erdogan

There is every chance Turkey will become even more aggressive in its stance towards the United States in the Syrian Kurdish regions east of the Euphrates.
Thursday 06/12/2018
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) attends the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires, on November 30. (AFP)
Trust issues. Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) attends the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires, on November 30. (AFP)

WASHINGTON - On November 29, as US President Donald Trump flew to Argentina to attend the Group of 20 summit, the White House said that a scheduled formal meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had been rearranged as a short, pull-aside meeting.

With little chance that anything of substance would be discussed during such a meeting, this can be taken as a more polite alternative to cancelling altogether.

No official reason has been given for the change but there are clues to go on.

With statements from Ankara frequently taking an aggressive tone towards the United States, the White House may have decided to spare itself the indignity of a formal meeting.

During a speech to his party’s deputies in parliament, Erdogan said the Islamic State did not exist in Syria, calling jihadists remaining in the country a “small number of gangs” trained and equipped by large foreign states to sow chaos in the region.

Erdogan thus explicitly labelled the United States’ stated reason for maintaining a presence in Syria -- to decisively defeat the Islamic State -- as nothing more than an excuse. The statement came as Washington announced plans to establish observation outposts in the predominantly Kurdish areas of northern Syria, bordering Turkey, where most US troops in Syria are stationed.

Erdogan said that “terrorist organisations and the powers supporting them” had used the Islamic State as a pretext to invade the region and claim its oil resources. He said if those groups simply departed, the problems facing Syria would solve themselves.

It is difficult not to see the remarks as an explicit rebuke to the United States, whose support of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) Erdogan and his government have condemned for months. Ankara defines the group as a terrorist organisation due to its links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), whose decades of armed struggle against Turkish armed forces have earned it a terrorist designation in both Ankara and Washington.

In other words, Erdogan was pinning the blame for the Islamic State and other problems of the region on the United States, the country that, until recently, was considered Turkey’s greatest ally.

The Turkish National Security Council meeting November 27, led by Erdogan, produced a statement that also set its sights on the United States, declaring that the most serious threat to Turkey in Syria was found in the area to the east of the Euphrates River, a region controlled by the YPG and its affiliates with US backing.

There were also statements by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Erdogan before they left for Argentina insisting -- for the thousandth time since the deal was signed last December -- that Turkey would buy Russian S-400 missile defence systems.

The arms deal has been a source of major consternation for Washington, which has threatened sanctions if Ankara goes through with it. Yet Erdogan, undeterred, expressed again his determination to buy the systems and vowed to use local currencies -- and not dollars -- when he does so.

The tightening links with Russia were on display when Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Turkey to celebrate the completion of the submerged section of the Turk Stream project. The pipeline will transport billions of cubic metres of Russian natural gas to Turkey and on to Europe, increasing Russia’s hold over the European energy market, another undesirable outcome for the United States and the European Union.

Turkish-US relations had been expected to thaw since October, when Ankara released US pastor Andrew Brunson, who had been held in Turkish prisons on terror and espionage charges for two years. Yet it seems despite this, and the US attempt to appease Turkey by assigning large bounties to three PKK leaders, relations have remained on the downward slide.

The Pentagon has presented to Congress a report on the effects of blocking US weapons sales to Turkey, a move devised by a bipartisan group of lawmakers in both houses in response to Turkey’s S-400 purchase. Leaked sections of the report reveal that Turkey stands to be removed from the production chain of the new F-35 fighter jets if it goes through with the deal and it could see its supply of US-built F-16 parts and participation in other projects suspended.

Meanwhile, no progress appears to have been made on Erdogan’s request for the extradition of Islamist preacher Fethullah Gulen or his followers living in the United States. Erdogan’s government has accused Gulen’s movement of attempting to infiltrate state institutions and take over the government and plotting a coup attempt in July 2016.

With all these sources of contention holding the two countries apart, the real question is why a meeting in Argentina should take place in the first place.

Apparently the White House decided that, in light of all of this, a meeting at the G20 with Erdogan would do nothing to benefit the Americans but would be held by the Turkish president as another victory.

The S-400 deal will be finalised, or called off, in 2019. While Washington is of the opinion that Turkey can be dissuaded from the purchase, there will be no option if it does go through but to remove Turkey from the F-35 project.

At the same time, there is every chance Turkey will become even more aggressive in its stance towards the United States in the Syrian Kurdish regions east of the Euphrates.