The White House red carpet was on full display for the visit of President Erdoğan on 13 November. In normal times this would not be of note. The US-Turkish association is a strategic one, something encapsulated by the decision of President Obama to make Turkey one of the first overseas destinations of his Presidency. Yet more questions are being asked about this relationship than ever before.
The US political establishment appears divided. Some see this as a warm White House and a cool congress, that Trump hugs Erdoğan close whilst Congressional leaders are typically hostile. Trump offered zero criticism of Turkey or its leader in his public comments. He described himself as “a great fan.”
Yet this ignores Trump’s behaviour not least during October, which may have been his most erratic month yet. Trump green lighted the Turkish invasion in a phone call with Erdoğan, yet within days was warning him not to go too far and was imposing sanctions on him threatening to destroy the Turkish economy. Trump is not averse to promising big trade deals with one of his famous hands, and threatening sanctions with the other.
This is not a coherent political strategy to deal with a key ally and fellow NATO member. Allies want stability and certainty in their relationship, a degree of trust. Trump in one month succeeded both in betraying the Kurds but also in undermining even further the US alliance with Ankara.
US Congressional leaders also have fair grounds for complaint. Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile system raises questions over its membership of NATO. Trump agrees with them on this and has threatened sanctions but will he follow through? Nothing was mentioned at the White House press conference. Erdoğan has countered that if the US refuses to allow Turkey back into the F-35 fighter program, then he would purchase Russian jets instead.
Legitimate questions are raised about Turkey’s commitment to the fight against Isis. Many ask what Turkey knew about the whereabouts of Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, the former Isis leader, when he was found to be in Idlib in north-west Syria, a mere five kilometres from the Turkish border holed up in a significantly equipped retreat which included tunnels. They also query how Turkey was able to locate with such seeming ease the man many considered to be Baghdadi’s deputy at large in Jarablus, an area Turkey has controlled for some time. Turkey also was able to arrest relatives of Baghdadi.
Maybe there is a plausible explanation. Yet the doubts will linger and reinforce the concerns that Erdoğan has never truly committed fully to the fight against Isis. Many will recall how the Turkish-Syrian border was pretty much open to all types of Jihadists until 2015. Some of the Syrian opposition Turkey backed and armed was hardly moderate.
The Erdoğan-Putin bromance must also trouble US policymakers in a way it does not seem to trouble President Trump at least to the same extent. Russia and Turkey have kicked off joint military patrols in northern Syria even though joint US-Turkish patrols never materialised. It seems to be just another signal of how Putin and Erdoğan share similar goals in a country these two leaders once sparred over. The Turkish invasion of north-east Syria, the third major military operation in Syria, infuriated American lawmakers. If you believe the reported comments of former US National Security Adviser John Bolton, nobody in Trump’s team agrees with him on Turkey either. Bolton went so far as to suggest personal motivations may be involved.
Turkey also has a very differing relationship with Iran than the US. Here is where one would expect Trump to be very tough on Erdoğan given the American President’s policy of ensuring his maximum pressure policy succeeds.
Turkey’s human rights issues are raised but once again critics question why this US administration says and does so little about it. Turkey’s record has only declined in recent years, not least in the field of freedom of expression and its fondness for locking up journalists. Any doubters in the US only have to call up the YouTube footage of Erdoğan’s security detail beating up Kurdish protesters in the centre of Washington during the President’s last visit to Washington in May 2017. Trump did nothing even after US citizens had been beaten up at the heart of the US capital.
Where does this US—Turkish relationship land up? Trump blows hot and cold, whilst Erdoğan flirts with Putin, playing both sides against each other. What would help would be genuine clarity and consistency from the US President. Trump needs to outline exactly what the US expects from his NATO ally on its relations with Russia, Iran and Islamist groups and stick to it. He also owes it to the Kurdish groups that fought Isis to limit what many already see as an outright betrayal by ensuring Turkey ends its repression of its Kurdish citizens and those in Syria. Turkey does have some legitimate security concerns but the invasion and occupation of parts of northern Syria is not the solution nor will it bring peace to this area of the Middle East.
Erdoğan needs to think long and hard about the risks associated with the Russian embrace. Putin may be an easier partner in the short-term but in the end the US has far more to offer not least in economic and technological terms.
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