ANKARA — In a world where some countries despair over Donald Trump and others see him as a breath of fresh air, Turkey is decidedly in the second category.
“The last seven or eight months of the Obama administration were marked by its total absence” as far as Ankara was concerned, said Ibrahim Kalin, spokesman and senior adviser to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. From what Turkey saw as his mistaken Syria policy to his foot-dragging on U.S. extradition of the alleged mastermind of last year’s coup attempt here, Barack Obama “simply was not there,” Kalin said.
Now, after an extended period of tension between the two NATO allies, “we have positive opinions of the new administration,” Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said Thursday. President Trump and Erdogan have spoken, and Yildirim met in Europe recently with Vice President Pence.
Trump’s order to the Pentagon to beef up its anti-Islamic State strategy has sparked a belief here that Turkey’s views will be paid more heed. Ankara also hopes for an early decision to extradite Turkish Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen from his Pennsylvania residence.
But despite the warm words and intimations of change, Turkey is probably headed for disappointment, as Trump, who prides himself on dealmaking and straight talk, finds that his ability to satisfy Ankara’s demands is limited.
So far, at least, Trump’s direction on the issues Turkey cares about most shows little sign of differing from that of his predecessor.
Senior officials, who met here this week with a group of U.S.-based reporters invited to hear Ankara’s official concerns, insisted that Turkey, despite recently strengthening its relations with Russia, remains firmly tied to the West. But some of “our Western friends genuinely have a hard time understanding these complicated stories” that drive Turkey, said Mehmet Simsek, the deputy prime minister and a former finance minister.
Syria is among the most complicated stories of all. Turkey thinks that the U.S. reliance on Syrian Kurds to fight the Islamic State in that country is both misbegotten and insulting. As the Pentagon completes plans for an offensive to conquer the city of Raqqa, the militants’ Syrian capital, Turkey has offered its own troops and Syrian Arab allies as alternatives.
“This operation should be carried out jointly by the United States and Turkey,” Yildirim said. Turkey believes that the Kurdish force, known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, is a terrorist organization allied with Turkish separatists that both Ankara and Washington have designated as terrorists. “You cannot simply eradicate a terrorist organization by making use of another terrorist organization,” Yildirim said.
If Washington insists, he said, “the friendship between the United States and Turkey will be significantly damaged and undermined.”
Kalin acknowledged that some in the new U.S. administration “are pushing for the old plan” drawn up under Obama. But Turkey thinks that within the Trump administration, there are “those who say we have to take Turkey’s concerns into account and consider other alternatives.”
A new version of the plan submitted to Trump late last month is much the same as the old one, calling for an alliance with the YPG and the United States’ own Syrian Arab forces. U.S. officials privately dismiss Turkey’s view of the YPG and have little confidence in the ability of Turkey and its allied Syrian rebel forces to substitute for the Kurds on what has become a tight timeline to launch the invasion of Raqqa during the first half of this year.
Rather than directly communicate that view to Ankara, however, the Trump administration is seeking to convince Turkey that it will not allow the Kurds to occupy Raqqa and will find a significant role for Turkey and its Arab allies in a later phase of stabilizing the city.
Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has met several times in recent months with his Turkish counterpart, Gen. Hulusi Akar, including a two-day session in the city of Antalya this week that Russia’s military chief of staff, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, also attended.
Their immediate goal was to “deconflict” military operations in what has become an increasingly chaotic battlefield in and around the northern Syrian town of Manbij, which was seized from the Islamic State last summer by the Syrian Democratic Forces, consisting of Kurds and Arabs. In recent days, U.S. troops have taken up positions around the town to prevent fights between the SDF and other U.S. allies in a force backed by Turkey.
Syrian government forces and Russia — which has been building its own relationship with the Syrian Kurds — have moved between the sides to form a buffer. In an unusually pointed message that highlighted Turkey’s frustration, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Thursday that his country would fight the U.S.-backed Kurdish forces if they did not withdraw from the town and would have “a problem” with Russia if it interfered.
Turkish sensitivities are particularly acute at the moment, with Erdogan fighting for approval of an April 16 referendum measure that would change Turkey’s governing system from a European-style parliamentary system to a U.S.-like presidential system. Even as it gingerly approaches Washington, the Erdogan government has engaged in outright shouting matches with Germany and other European countries that have barred Turkish cabinet members from campaigning for diaspora votes.
Perhaps even more than either the referendum or Syria, no issue has been as vexing to Ankara as Washington’s declining to extradite Gulen, the alleged mastermind of last year’s failed coup attempt that killed more than 250 people, traumatized the nation and unleashed a broad and staggering purge of suspected enemies that has reached into virtually every state institution.
Turkish officials say, with some justification, that there is broad consensus in Turkish society that Gulen, a U.S. permanent resident, should be turned over — an opinion shared by even some government opponents who hope that his return might calm a crackdown that has extended far beyond his followers and swept up many other dissenters in the news media and civil society.
Turkish officials adamantly assert that they have provided the U.S. Justice Department with voluminous evidence of Gulen’s direct involvement in the failed coup attempt. “It’s crystal clear,” the Turkish justice minister, Bekir Bozdag, said Thursday, although he declined to detail the evidence that U.S. officials have privately said is largely hearsay that is unlikely to stand up in a U.S. federal court, which would have to agree before Gulen could be extradited.
Bozdag said he was told as much by Obama’s attorney general, Loretta E. Lynch. He said Lynch told him that the process was taking so long because the United States wants “our hand to be strong.”
But that reasoning has not satisfied Turkish officials, who liken the coup attempt to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States. Comparing Gulen to Osama bin Laden, Bozdag said: “We believe that if he is not extradited, then for us, no one can be extradited.”
Turkey sees the lack of action against Gulen as a symptom of a broader problem: that many of Turkey’s allies, including the United States, do not take seriously the threats Turkey perceives to be posed by Gulen and the Kurds.
Zakaria Zakaria in Istanbul contributed to this report.