If Turkey’s cowed press is to be believed President Recep Tayyip Erdogan returned home in triumph from his May 16 White House talks with US President Donald Trump.
“Erdogan warns: There’s no place for YPG in our region” (Star Gazetesi); “Erdogan to Trump: Return Gulen to Turkey: Stop Supporting the YGP, Period!” (Turkije); and “Erdogan serves warning about the YPG at White House” (Haberturk) were three headlines put out by loyal titles. And even the centrist Hurriyet bleated: “Two clear messages for Trump from Erdogan”.
The problem with all of that, of course, is that it jars with reality. To avoid a public falling out with Trump, Erdogan in fact had to swallow his pride. Whatever promises he might have received behind the scenes, Erdogan had to publicly stand side by side with a commander in-chief who has made it perfectly clear that he is going ahead with his plan to arm the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and has given no public indication that he is at all minded to arrange for the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, the exiled cleric Erdogan insists masterminded the failed coup that took place in Turkey last year.
Away from the spin put on Trump and Erdogan’s first meeting, most Western commentators have been quite clear that the Turkish president has suffered a series of geopolitical setbacks since his disputed narrow referendum victory on stronger presidential powers.
“Erdogan outgunned at Trump meeting in face of US-Russian united front,” read a piece by Simon Tisdall in The Guardian, which saw the rebuff on the Syrian-Kurdish issue as part of a “pattern of alignment between Washington and Moscow on perceived threats”.
Turkish officials had billed the meeting as a pivotal moment in the two countries’ troubled relationship, but Trump, sticking to his script, simply “made the expected noises in public”, wrote Tisdall.
Commentators have noted that any hopes Erdogan had of persuading Trump not to arm the YPG – an enemy of Ankara’s given its links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party [PKK] which launched an insurgency against the Turkish state in 1984 – were actually dashed by Russian President Vladimir Putin the day before his Washington visit.
Speaking in Beijing, Putin basically told Erdogan not to interfere with the policy of using the YPG in the battle to defeat jihadist terrorist group Isis in Syria. “As the Kurdish factor is a real factor in the situation in Syria, and Kurdish armed formations are taking part in combat operations against Isis and are among the most combat efficient units, we consider it right to maintain working contacts with them,” Putin said.
However embarrassing the arming of the Syrian Kurds might be for Erdogan he does not want to upset his chances of forming a good relationship with Trump, in contrast to the poor relations he ended up with when it came to Barack Obama. The previous American president even declined to hold a private meeting with Erdogan when he travelled to the US in March last year, with analysts concluding it was a case of Obama wanting to distance himself from the Ankara government’s poor human rights record.
Human rights, including the massive post-coup purges in Turkey, were hardly on the agenda in the meeting with Trump. Some efforts in that direction were made by the US State Department but the American president largely ignored them. Nevertheless, a Washington Post opinion piece written by Gulen to coincide with Erdogan’s arrival, and a brawl outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence in the US capital, in which Erdogan’s bodyguards attacked protesters carrying the flag of the Kurdish PYD party, ensured that the issue never entirely went away.
Trump of course is not one to lecture another “strong president” on what he does back home in his own country. In an interview with the New York Times in July last year, Trump praised the stance taken by Erdogan in response to the attempted putsch. “I give great credit to him for being able to turn that [the coup attempt] around… that was quite impressive from the standpoint of the existing government,” he told the newspaper. Trump also said at the time that “the US was not in a position to lecture other countries about what they do inside their borders… when America itself has a lot of problems when it comes to civil liberties”.
Erdogan’s gambit must be that Trump’s rhetoric – “We've had a great relationship and we will make it even better," the American president declared at the White House – will eventually translate into meaningful gains for Ankara. And in the meantime, he has a similar situation to work on with Putin. Following his May 3 meeting with Erdogan in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia’s president hailed the restoration of what he called “full format” relations between Russia and Turkey, more than a year and a half after the countries fell out over the shooting down of a Russian fighter-bomber near the Syrian border.
At the very least, Erdogan’s visit to Washington provided him with a photo opportunity that should play well with much of the audience back home, allowing him to claim confirmation of Turkey’s strategic partner status.
Last week, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said that Washington had assured Ankara that the YPG would be shunted aside after a successful operation to clear Isis out of its Raqqa stronghold. Ankara, in the meantime, may feel it is well worth the longer gains to look the other way until the battle for Raqqa is over. But what happens if the YPG stays in the city and refuses to pull back?
Soner Cagaptay at the Washington Institute told the Financial Times that that is where he is expecting a crisis between the US and Turkey. The YPG will not hold to its part of the bargain, according to Cagaptay.
Semiz Idiz, in a May 16 piece for Al-Monitor, also looked at the Turkish frustration with the Kurds: “Few expect him [Erdogan] to return from Washington with much. What he will do in that case is not clear. Any steps he takes that escalate Turkish-US tensions will likely leave Turkey even more isolated in Syria.”
He added: “Erdogan also has to contend with the fact that Washington and Moscow both support the YPG… They also agree that the Syrian Kurds can be given cultural autonomy. Ankara says it will prevent this, but it is not clear how Erdogan can do this without harming Turkey’s long-term interests.”
For decades, in fact since the foundation of the republic in 1923, Turkey has believed that its future lies with the West: Turkey became a Nato member, and forged strong ties with the US and Europe and despite its rather fraught relations with Brussels, Ankara still officially sees EU membership as a strategic target.
If Trump too disappoints Ankara, will Turkey turn its back on the West and look east for new partners?
Some analysts see Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia as an attempt by Ankara to find new friends in the East as an alternative to the West.
But Ankara knows well that Russia is no substitute for the West, economically or politically. For instance, the EU absorbs more than 40% of Turkey's exports while two-thirds of foreign direct investment in Turkey comes from EU member states.
In Washington, Trump said he would discuss with Erdogan the need to reinvigorate trade and commercial ties. “These are areas where we can build our relationship that will benefit both of our countries. Military equipment has been ordered by Turkey and the president, and we've made sure that it gets there quickly,” he added.
“Relations between Turkey and the US are not limited to the YPG/PKK and the Gulen network,” wrote Murat Yetkin, a well-respected columnist for Hurriyet Daily News on May 16. “From Central Asia to the Balkans, from the Ukraine-Russia crisis to Mediterranean security, there are more than a dozen issues where the two countries are cooperating. And there are steps that both must take in order to keep this relationship going, which is in the interests of both of them,” Yetkin observed.