For Erdogan, accustomed to taking center stage (but not accustomed to humoring the news media), it must have been an interesting moment.
It was the first meeting between two controversial leaders who don't often mince their words, and it was a big one. While Turkey and the United States are long-standing allies, their relationship has been rocky in recent years, with the Obama administration frustrated by Ankara's Syria policy as well as by Erdogan's increasingly authoritarian rule.
Ahead of the Turkish leader's visit to the White House, some observers saw potential for a showdown between frenemies, while others suggested it was an opportunity for a dramatic reset. Trump, after all, was the only Western leader to congratulate Erdogan after his camp won a razor-thin — if suspect — victory on a constitutional referendum in April. But with Trump engulfed in the backlash from his latest spectacular unforced error, neither outcome occurred.
At WH, Erdogan credits Trump for a "legendary triumph" in the 2016 election. Trump, smiling, mouths, "Thank you."— Ed O'Keefe (@edokeefe) May 16, 2017
Standing side by side in the White House's Roosevelt Room, Erdogan and Trump delivered statements that were friendly and formulaic. Using similar language, Trump hailed Turkish military prowess — “Turkish courage in war is legendary,” he said — while Erdogan praised Trump's “legendary triumph” in last year's presidential election. Trump concluded proceedings by declaring that the United States and Turkey will have an “unbeatable” friendship.
The bromides, though, do little to paper over the obvious divisions between the two countries. As we've discussed before, there are two main sticking points.
First, there's American support for the YPG, a faction of Syrian Kurdish fighters that Turkey sees as an extension of its own Kurdish separatist insurgency. Both Ankara and Washington consider the PKK, the Kurdish separatist party in Turkey, a terrorist organization. But successive administrations in Washington have “de-linked” the YPG and its affiliates from the PKK. Last week, much to Turkey's chagrin, the Trump administration confirmed it would arm the YPG ahead of a campaign to capture the Syrian city of Raqqa, the Islamic State's de facto capital.
The second issue has to do with Turkey's calls for the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish Islamic cleric who has lived for two decades in the United States and is viewed by many back home as the key figure behind last year's failed attempt to oust Erdogan.
During his brief statement, Erdogan mentioned both Gulen and the threat of the YPG. Trump offered what could be interpreted as a sop to the Turkish position, speaking of the PKK — a group with a secular, Marxist-Leninist ideology — and the Islamic State in the same breath as Turkish officials often do, but said nothing about Turkey's well-established concerns about the Syrian Kurds or the cleric-in-exile.
That's probably for the best. Both leaders find themselves in tricky spots: Trump is mired in an endless wave of gaffes and scandals, while Erdogan faces deepening opposition at home and has seen his aggressive plans for regime change in Syria implode. Both will make do with muddling along.
According to reports, Turkey will even accept Trump's arming of the YPG — with certain conditions. “The United States must stick with its promise to ensure that none of the weapons it gives the YPG are used against Turkey and that it will not allow the YPG to run Raqqa, even through its Arab proxies,” wrote Turkish journalist Amberin Zaman ahead of Erdogan's arrival. “It can offer Turkey a role in the governance and reconstruction of Raqqa and encourage cooperation between the YPG’s Arab partners and Turkey’s Arab protégés.”
Meanwhile, Turkey will continue to launch strikes on PKK and YPG positions in both Syria and Iraq, and the United States is likely to look the other way.
“Turkish officials specifically conveyed to their American counterparts at the highest levels almost in every meeting that Turkey would continue to hit the YPG whenever Ankara feels [it] necessary or feels threatened,” wrote Ragip Soylu, the Washington correspondent for Sabah, a pro-Erdogan newspaper. “A senior Turkish official would not confirm, but many other sources suggested that Turkey sees the area at a 30-kilometer distance across the border in Syria as a red line for YPG movement.”
As for Gulen, both sides may be happy to see no movement on the issue.
“I wonder if Erdogan wants Gulen to be extradited,” said Soner Cagaptay, author of the recent book “The New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey.” In recent years, Erdogan's nationalist bluster has relied on the spectral existence of external threats and conspiracies against his rule. But if Gulen, an ailing septuagenarian, appeared in Turkish court and got sent to jail, Cagaptay pointed out, “he ceases being the eternal enemy, and instead becomes more of a martyr rather than a nefarious coup plotter.”
Trump and Erdogan aren't about to kick-start a new era of U.S.-Turkish ties. The U.S. foreign policy community has long since given up on Ankara as a dependable ally, while leaders in Europe have suggested NATO allies reconsider the use of a pivotal air base in Turkey. Erdogan's own brand of nationalism means he seems destined to now always keep the West at arm's length.
“Turkey is no longer viewed as a top tier ally by key actors in the U.S. policy debate, and instead is viewed as an irritant who failed to take decisive steps against the Islamic State in the early days of the war,” wrote Aaron Stein, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
But, at least in their first meeting, it seemed neither leader came away with a new headache to reckon with or a new ax to grind.
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