In order to understand Turkish hopes aroused by the new US administration, we must examine the reasons behind the sharp deterioration of Turkish-American relations which had come near the breaking point. Although Barack Obama had trusted him at first1, Recep Tayyip Erdogan gradually fell into disfavour with his American ally.
In July 2013, when he was still only Prime Minister, Erdogan put down the protest movement known as “Gezi” with such overtly excessive force that it brought criticism from Washington. At the same time, disagreements over the Syrian crisis deepened between Turks and Americans. Following the failed coup of 15 July 2016, the situation got worse. Isolated and bogged down as it was in the Syrian crisis, Turkey partly blamed this on international apathy. On the domestic front, Erdogan felt threatened with the same fate as his ideological counterpart in Egypt, Mohammed Morsi. He clamped down on the media, purged the State apparatus of the rebels manipulated by the “traitor Gülen.” Individual and collective freedoms were curtailed in the name of the struggle against such destabilising forces as terrorism and the “enemies of the Nation.” As a consequence, the United States, for many political and juridical reasons, remained deaf to Turkey’s demands and invoked the regime’s toughening and Western apprehensions to deny Ankara’s request for Fethulah Gülen’s extradition.
But it was over the Syrian question that the two countries’ disagreement was sharpest, because their interests are not the same. In Syria, Turkey is fighting three enemies at once: the Bashar Al-Assad regime, The Workers’ Party of Kurdistan (PKK) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), while for the US and NATO, the only priority is the absolute eradication of ISIL terrorism. Ankara hopes to overcome this irreconcilability by welcoming Donald Trump’s election. The new president’s personality can only reinforce Erdogan’s hopes. In this demagogue he finds a peer, contemptuous of the media and with few scruples about human rights and freedoms around the world. Trump is not one to pass judgement on the decline of democracy in Turkey. Of course, he makes little effort to conceal his dislike of Islam and Muslims, whereas Erdogan sees himself as a great Muslim chief of State, determined to promote Islam around the word. But this is a contradiction which Erdogan could easily take in his stride if he obtained satisfaction regarding the Kurdish question in Syria and the Gülen affair. However nothing proves that he will.
The Syrian Headache
The attempted coup in July 2016 was experienced as a national trauma. The official rhetoric, hammered home by the media, has convinced the whole country that it was instigated by Fethullah Gülen. Whatever his involvement in the coup—undeniable but perhaps not as crucial as is officially claimed—the fact remains that Gülen and his network have been blowing hot and cold over the Turkish government for years and certainly constitute an element of destabilisation.2 For Ankara, Gülen’s extradition from the US ought to be self-evident between allies. For Obama, the law had to prevail, and the lack of evidence was enough to prevent the procedure from going through. With this new administration, the attitude towards the exiled imam may change, but not enough to allow an extradition which in any case would be stopped by the courts. On the other hand, Trump might decide to register disapproval of the Gülen movement and curtail its US-based activities, if only out of revenge for Gülen’s having come out in favour of Hillary Clinton. For Erdogan, such a gesture would be meager consolation but appreciable nonetheless.
As for the Syrian issue, the conflicting views seem irreconcilable.[[ Henri J. Barkey, “Syria’s Dark Shadow over US-Turkey Relations”]. For the West, and first the United States, the eradication of ISIL in Syria depends on reinforcing co-operation with the Kurdish militias of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) which they have been supporting from the start, while in Ankara’s view, these are dependent on the Democratic Union Party (PYD) whose links with the PKK are well-known. We must remember that the latter figures on the list of terrorist organisations to which the US, the EU, Canada and a good many other countries still subscribe, as does Turkey, of course. Ankara would like to get the new administration to stop supporting the Kurds and coordinate with Turkey and the anti-Bashar resistance in Syria, particularly for the reconquest of Raqqa, ISIL’s de facto capital.
This demand is all the more unrealistic as it is those Kurdish troops, remarkably efficient on the battlefield, which have allowed Washington to avoid sending in the GIs. Ankara argues that the successes of the YPG are due to mainly to the air support provided to the Kurds but denied the anti-Bashar resistance. And for Ankara, the alliance with the Kurds will cause other problems, such as a new Arab-Kurdish war once ISIS has been eliminated from those territories.
The Weight of Russia
It does appear that the new US administration is aware of this dilemma and the difficult choices it implies. In order to demonstrate their difference, the Trump team might take on the difficult but not impossible task of mobilising both Turkish and Kurdish troops against ISIL. The idea would be to continue relying on Kurdish forces but without giving them any priority, and on the Syrian forces backed by the Turks, who would also be invited to take part in the bombing campaign against the jihadists. This scenario, which in itself is terribly ambitious considering the deep mutual distrust between Turks and Kurds, will also depend on Russia, which still holds the balance of power in Syria. Thus, unexpectedly enough, Moscow has a determinant hand to play in Turkish-American relations.
Seeing Turkey isolated among its NATO allies and somewhat abandoned by them, the Russian president invited Erdogan to Moscow on March 10th, thus courting Turkey by letting it hope for a respectable share in the search for solutions in Syria. Even if Trump decides to pacify US relations with Turkey and resume co-operation, it is not at all certain that Russia will let him do it. Moscow has powerful levers—including economic ones—in Ankara which affect Turkey’s vital interests, particularly as regards the neutralisation of the Kurds in the future recomposition of Syria. Will Russia find itself in the role of an arbitrator between the conflicting views of Turkey and the United States?
1See Josh Rogin, “Obama names his world leader best buddies!”, Foreign Policy,19 January 2012, and Halil Karaveli, “Obama and Erdogan’s Trust Problem”, The National Interest, 15 May 2013.
2Michael A. Reynolds, “Damaging Democracy: The US, Fethullah Gülen, and Turkey’s Upheaval”, Foreign Policy Research Institute, 26 September 2016.