The need to turn over a new leaf
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been in New York to address the U.N. General Assembly and raise awareness about various global injustices, including the ongoing genocide in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. At the same time, he will hold a number of tête-a-tête meetings with other world leaders. On Thursday, Mr. Erdoğan will discuss pressing issues with U.S. President Donald Trump, including the independence referendum in northern Iraq and the situation in Syria.
At a time when Turkey-U.S. relations remain strained, I still maintain that the Turkish leader’s meetings with his American counterpart are important. Needless to say, Donald Trump’s presidency has failed to bring about the heavily anticipated recovery in bilateral relations. We already know that Barack Obama continues to cast a shadow over Washington’s assistance to the People’s Protection Units (YPG) – the PKK’s Syrian franchise – and Syria policy. The delivery of 3,000 truckloads of weapons to PKK militants in Syria, coupled with efforts to transform the group into a ‘regular army’ are considered hostile steps by Ankara.
If Turkey-U.S. relations are intended to head for a fresh start rather than a collapse, Washington must revise its Middle East policies, especially the leftovers from the Obama administration on Syria, Iraq and Iran
To be clear, Washington’s relationship with Turkey is going through the arguably most difficult period since the end of the Cold War. The fact that America’s government agencies remain largely disorganized, along with the ideologically-charged anti-Turkey and anti-Erdoğan sentiments in U.S. Congress, intensify the problems at hand. Therefore that I find Erdoğan and Trump’s ability to hold warm meetings important and the door should not be shut on such meetings in order to prevent the current tensions from developing into a structural break between allies.
Of course, the Turks understand that the government crisis in Washington is far from over. Turkish officials blame Reza Zarrab’s trial along the line of FETÖ’s Dec. 17-25 conspiracy, arrest warrants being issued for members of President Erdoğan’s security detail and America’s failure to take concrete steps regarding the extradition of Fetullah Gülen to Turkey on resistance by government agencies to the White House and the judiciary’s own agenda.
In other words, the Turkish leadership understands that President Trump, unable to consolidate his power, has been fighting for survival. A number of resignations from the White House, along with key officials being removed from office and President Trump’s inability to appoint high-level officials at the U.S. State Department and elsewhere, are some of the “management” crises that immediately come to mind.
Therefore, the fact that the two leaders would like to work together is the single most significant source of hope for Turkey-U.S. relations. However, it is important to note that the relationship is running out of time. The Trump administration’s failure to develop a clear Middle East and Syria policy causes the negative side effects of the Obama administration’s policies to take hold in the region. Vital threats such as the disintegration of Syria and Iraq and the transformation of the PKK-YPG into some type of statelet, encourages Turkey to work more closely with Russia and Iran on the ground. The Astana process, an agreement over de-conflicting zones and Turkey’s purchase of S-400 defense systems from Moscow are cases in point.
As the fight against Daesh draws near, Turkey and Iran are seeking to cooperate on the YPG threat as well. Although there is no strategic cooperation yet, Turkey has been working more closely with Russia and Iran on the ground, a step that could irreversibly drag Turkey-U.S. relations into a maelstrom. Facing troubles in domestic politics, Mr. Trump might be unable to realize the risks involved. But the U.S. State Department and the Pentagon must note without further delay that placing the strategic partnership between Washington and Ankara would hurt U.S. interests. There are rumors that U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis appreciate Turkey’s importance for the Middle East and have played a constructive role to repair the relationship.
If Turkey-U.S. relations are intended to head for a fresh start rather than collapse, Washington must revise its Middle East policy, especially the Obama administration’s leftover policies on Syria, Iraq and Iran. Efforts to manage post-Daesh Syria and Iraq policies with Obama-era leftovers, like Brett McGurk, go against the Trump administration’s own priorities. How can we account for all talk in Washington about isolating Iran, for example, while compelling Turkey to cooperate more closely with Russia and Iran?
Long story short, Team Trump needs to rethink the meaning of Washington’s partnership with Turkey and the overall direction in which the Middle East is heading before new ‘accidents’ happen to dispel the air of positiveness between the two leaders.
This article was first published in Daily Sabah on September 20, 2017.