On September 21st, 2016, the SETA Foundation at Washington D.C. hosted a panel discussion entitled, “U.S.-Turkey Relations Under the Trump Administration.” The panelists looked to the future and discussed how the bilateral relationship between the U.S. and Turkey will change and develop under the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump. Panelists included Ambassador James Jeffrey, the Philip Solondz Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Adam Entous, a national security reporter at The Washington Post, and Kilic B. Kanat, Research Director at the SETA Foundation at Washington D.C. The panel was moderated by Ahmet Selim Tekelioglu, the Research Fellow at the SETA Foundation at Washington D.C.
Kilic Kanat began the event by highlighting several areas on which the Turkish government is hopeful about better cooperation under the Trump administration. He argued that the largest failure in recent relations between the two countries has been public diplomacy and urged the Trump administration to conduct damage control as soon as possible. Part of such damage control would involve better recognition of Turkey’s contributions to the anti-ISIS coalition. He also pointed out that the U.S.’ relationship with the PYD has been another major issue of contention in the relationship. Kanat said that the PYD’s status as an arm of the PKK makes it a significant security threat to Turkey. Lastly, he mentioned the issue of Fethullah Gulen, and the current extradition request as important piece of the future of the relationship.
Adam Entous began by noting that is unclear how the Trump administration will respond to the numerous crises that the U.S. and Turkey share interest in. “We won’t know until Trump is briefed on covert cooperation with Turkey on Syrian front whether or not he will continue to support [the Syrian] opposition,” Entous remarked. He did suggest that there are several things that he expects the Trump administration to do. Firstly, Entous argued that Trump and his administration will be focused on the fight against ISIS. He asserted that a more aggressive U.S. strategy will necessitate a strong relationship with Turkey.
Entous pointed out that both Lt. General Michael Flynn, a confirmed member of the administration, and General James Mattis, a possible pick for Secretary of Defense, have been very critical of Iran. If Mattis is picked as Secretary of Defense, Entous argued that the U.S. will adopt a more confrontational strategy towards Iran, and be less concerned about either an unraveling of the nuclear deal. He also suggested that the U.S. will be more willing to fire on Iranian forces on the assumption that Iran will not respond or escalate a situation. Entous maintained that such an approach by the U.S. will be good for Turkey, given the concerns that the Turkish government has about Iranian militias in both Iraq and Syria.
James Jeffrey began with the blunt declaration that, “No matter who won the November 8 election, it would have been better for Turkey than Barack Obama has been.” He maintained that Turkey is “a status quo power unlike Iran and Russia, who are revisionist powers.” As such, Turkey and the U.S. have commonality of interests in not allowing either Russia or Iran to establish a hegemony in various areas like the Black Sea, the Balkans, the Baltics, or elsewhere.
Jeffrey contended that Turkey faces three enemies to the south: the PYD, the Assad regime and Russia, and Iranian backed opposition forces. While he recognized the YPG/PYD as a threat, he disagreed with Kanat’s characterization of it as an existential threat. He said that though there are thousands of Turkish soldiers and Kurdish fighters around Kobani, they are not currently fighting one another. He argued that the relationship is very complicated between Turkey and the PYD, but that it is not as grave a threat as has been suggested by Turkey. Jeffrey argued that ISIS, another threat to the south, is already somewhat contained, and will eventually be defeated. As such, Jeffrey argued that it is not the largest issue in the Middle East at this time. He warned that if the U.S. were to cooperate with Russia in order to defeat ISIS it would undermine containing Iranian influence in the region.
Speaking on Gulen, Jeffrey stated that there’s a “growing awareness in the U.S. of the Gulenists and their role in the coup.” He expects that, if Trump follows Flynn’s advice, the new administration will be very harsh on Gulen and his organization. Jeffrey warned that it may hinder the extradition case if the government is portrayed as prejudiced against Gulen, but argued that defeating the organization writ large is more important than extraditing Gulen.
Ahmet Tekelioglu asked Entous if he had any expectations on where the Trump foreign policy is going given what is known about the cabinet members so far. Entous remarked that thanks to the anti-ISIS operations, the CIA and MIT have had a better relation in the last few years than previously, and expects that the good relationship will continue. He noted that Flynn’s characterization of Turkey as the most important ally in the fight against ISIS may lead to a shift in U.S. policy away from relying on the Kurds in Syria. Entous suggested that the most important is Mattis, who is not yet confirmed as a choice for the cabinet. As CENTCOM commander, Mattis was very tough on Iran and spent a large amount of time working to find common interests and areas of cooperation between Israel and the Gulf States. If Mattis is picked as Secretary of Defense, Entous suggested that he will likely work to coordinate the various programs and actions of U.S. allies in the region, which are currently sometimes working at cross-purposes.
Entous ended the discussion by noting that the U.S. military to military relationship has already gotten much better since the coup. He reiterated his argument that if Mattis become secretary of defense, the U.S. approach will change dramatically. Likely, Mattis will push for the U.S. to be more involved and supportive of allies’ operations.