Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is attempting to put a positive spin on his Washington encounter with his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump, calling it a “new awakening” in bilateral relations.
But behind joint commitments “to work together in the war against terrorism,” reaction has been cool in Turkey, with a recognition that the much-heralded “pivotal” encounter failed to deliver any breakthrough in ongoing points of bilateral tension.
“Trump, Erdogan seek to strengthen ties: White House,” read a less than enthusiastic headline of the pro-Erdogan Turkish Yeni Safak newspaper.
“It was an important meeting, but to qualify it as pivotal, some long-lasting big-time decisions have to be made. This was no such meeting,” said Sinan Ulgen, a visiting scholar of the Carnegie Institute in Brussels, adding, “On many issues which continue to divide Turkey and the U.S., there does not seem to be a particular convergence.”
Erdogan had pledged to seek to reverse Trump’s decision to arm the Syrian Kurdish militia, the YPG, in its fight against the Islamic State. Ankara accuses the militia of being a terrorist organization affiliated with the PKK, which is fighting the Turkish State.
“Erdogan was hoping to use his much-vaunted persuasive skills in high-level meetings when he met Trump,” noted Atilla Yesilada, a political consultant of Global Source Partners.
But the Turkish president had little opportunity to persuade Trump, with his meeting lasting only a reported 22 minutes. The two leaders’ meeting was followed by a luncheon involving officials from both sides.
“The fact the initial meeting was so short is another indication that this was essentially a preparatory meeting where many issues on the bilateral relationship were not discussed in depth,” noted analyst Ulgen.
Gulen remains an issue
Erdogan’s calls for the extradition of Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, too, appears to have made little headway. Ankara blames Gulen for masterminding last July’s failed coup attempt. “Possible steps” were discussed on the issue, wrote Ibrahim Kalin, Erdogan’s top adviser, in a statement. Ankara is also reportedly pressing for Gulen’s detention ahead of extradition hearings.
The failure to make any breakthrough on key issues of dispute was widely predicted, but resolving such disputes may not have been the main purpose of Erdogan’s visit.
“The single most important outcome from the Turkish perspective of this visit was clear — that is, to garner international legitimacy for the referendum results and the Erdogan presidency,” said former senior Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen, who served in Washington and Iraq. “Of course the U.S. being sole global power, to have the photograph at the Oval Office was the sole target of Erdogan’s visit. From that perspective, it was a success.”
YPG at status quo
Last month, Erdogan narrowly won a controversial referendum victory extending his powers. Allegations of vote rigging continue to dog the result, with Trump remaining the only western ally to congratulate Erdogan’s success.
During talks with Erdogan, Trump reportedly did not raise human rights concerns and an ongoing crackdown on dissent, despite more than 60 members of Congress expressing their concern over the deteriorating situation.
The U.S. president also extended support to Ankara’s war against the PKK. “They will have no safe quarter,” Trump said.
“All talk, no walk. That support was already there,” noted former Turkish diplomat Selcen. “Does that entail a green light from Washington for Turkey to carry out similar airstrikes as Ankara did against the YPG? I don’t think so.”
Erdogan has warned that his forces are ready to launch cross-border operations against the Kurdish rebels based in Iraq. Just hours before Erdogan sat down with Trump, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim made a less than thinly veiled warning of military incursions if Washington fails to address Turkish concerns.
Turkish military forces remain massed on both the Syrian and Iraqi borders close to position of the YPG. Last month, Turkish forces struck YPG targets in Syria and Iraq, in the face of U.S. opposition, with one strike narrowly missing U.S. special forces. “I would expect more of the same. The same tensions will continue,” predicted former diplomat Selcen, “yet at the same time, some sort cooperation will continue concerning Syria and Iraq, as well.”
But such differences with Washington will be tempered by Ankara’s increasingly vulnerable position.
“From Erdogan’s perspective and Ankara’s perspective, the relationship with the U.S. is at a critical importance, at a time when Turkey’s relationships with its other partners in the West have entered a period of acrimony and difficulty. Therefore, the relationship with Washington and the need for a sound relationship with the new U.S. president is now more important than ever,” said analyst Ulgen.