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‘US-Turkey relations under the Trump presidency’ Incek Debate 15 February 2017

Centre of Political, Social, Cultural Researches |05 Mart 2017 Sunday


‘US-Turkey relations under the Trump presidency’

Incek Debates, on 15 February 2017, discussed ‘the future of relations between Turkey and the United States under the Trump Presidency’. Speakers were Amb Faruk Loğoğlu (ret’d), Col Richard Outzen (U.S. Department of State) and Dr Oktay Bingöl (Başkent University, Ankara). The session was chaired by Dr Haldun Solmaztürk and was participated by a select group of experts as well as an international representation from the diplomatic corps resident in Ankara. Below is Rapporteur’s Summary of the debate, not necessarily reflecting particular viewpoints expressed by any one of the panelists, nor those of any one or all of the participants in consensus. The debate was off-the-record.

President Donald Trump took office on 20 January 2017. He won on a populist-nationalist platform that offended—and alienated—many in the United States and elsewhere in the world. Since then, he has confirmed and consolidated his image as uncompromising, unaccommodating, unforgiving, determined to punish his ‘enemies’ while rewarding ‘loyalty’—and certainly less than tolerant of the critical media. All this is hardly unfamiliar to independent—and learned—observors of the Turkish political reality.

Will this similarity in style and rhetoric of politics help improving relations between the United States and Turkey, under the Trump presidency, and be transferred into some desperately needed cooperation in terms of the nature and essence of foreign and security policies?

Top foreign policy challenge the Trump administration is faced with—as clearly spelled out by President Trump himself—is ‘the Islamic State’. Intermingled with this challenge is the controversial—but critically important—thorny Kurdish Project which was carefully put, by the American side, on the back burner of the policy debate for now. However the reality on the ground suggests that this ‘decision’ cannot be possibly deferred any longer.

As President Trump moved into the White House, Turkish expectations from the new American administration were rapidly rising, perhaps to unrealistic levels. Not only PYD—and US/Western support to it—but also Fethullah Gülen and Reza Zarrab cases further complicate bilateral relations.

Nearer the time, British PM Theresa May visited Ankara on 28 January—direct from her meeting with President Trump in Washington, D.C.—to meet PM Binali Yıldırım and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Erdoğan called President Trump for the first time on 8 February and they had a 45-minute talk. PM Yıldırım also called US Vice President Michael Pence on 9 February. Less than 48 hours after the Trump-Erdoğan call, CIA Director Mike Pompeo arrived in Ankara on 9 Feb. His first overseas visit was reportedly dedicated to dealing with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and ending the Syrian war in general—an attempt to reset bilateral relations which increasingly worsened towards the end of Obama administration. And as the debate progressed, Minister of National Defence Fikri Işık of Turkey met with US Secretary of Defense James Mattis in Brussels, during the meetings of the North Atlantic Council (NAC) at the level of Defence Ministers.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel also visited Ankara on 2 February 2017 and met with President Erdoğan. However, reflecting diverging priorities in approaches (values vs interests) to Turkey between Europe and the U.S., her purpose of visit and the spirit of talks were rather different. She emphasized the ‘separation of powers’ and, above all, ‘freedom of opinion and the diversity of society’ as well as the issue of ‘press freedom’. “Opposition is part of democracy” she said.

Against this background, Incek Debates discussed, ‘the future of relations between Turkey and the United States under the Trump Presidency’ focusing on the crises in the Middle East and addressing the hurdles complicating relations.

Executive Summary

Overly optimistic expectations on the part of the Turkish government based on selective comparisons of Democratic administrations with Republican ones are not supported by political reality and historical record. In general ‘continuity’ dominates American foreign policy more than ‘variation’.

A confluence of styles and overlap of certain values—at the top leadership level—do not necessarily lead to convergence in interests. Therefore, such unfounded expectations, divorced from respective national interests are simply artificial, misleading and counterproductive.

Reducing bilateral relations to two issues—YPG and Gülen—is also oversimplification. There is vital common interest in creation of a stable security environment in the Middle East. However, differences in interpretation of stability and security and how to achive them persist.

There are many areas and issues over which potential clash of interests are doomed to come into play: ‘radical Islamic terrorism’, Iraq, crisis in Syria, Iran, Israel & Palestine, Cyprus, PKK, PYD/YPG & Kurdish question, Gülen. Syria has come to represent almost all of these difficulties at the same time, and debates over the Raqqa operation and safe zones have become pivotal themes for the future of Turkish-American relations. Similarly, the way the Syrian crisis will be resolved will determine the fate of the region.

For Turkey, elimination of the PKK threat and defeating ISIL appear to be main priorities. Recently, securing ‘safe zones’ for friendly and affiliated groups has also gained increased importance for Turkey. For the U.S., short-term priority seems to be consolidating Kurdish gains in Iraq and Syria and transfering as much territory (liberated from ISIL) as possible, to Kurds while avoiding a Turkish backlash.

Both countries are faced with multiple dilemmas. Both countries appear to have ‘no policy, no strategy, but many plans’. Yet their leaders have many bright ideas with episodic engagements in foreign policy which is rationalised by the so-called ‘reactive pragmatism’.

To find a common ground is very difficult—for both countries—for many reasons, not the least of which there are so many other stakeholders. ‘Raqqa’ and ‘safe zones’ denote more than their nominal values and meanings. It will be very difficult to sell Raqqa operation to the Turkish public. However, Manbij has the potential to cause serious complications between Turkey and the U.S.

Nobody can possibly solve the Middle East puzzle alone. There is no silver bullet available to any one party. The final solution will have to reflect the common will of the international community—symbolized by UNSCRs, address the region as a whole, and offer a long term promise for peace and stability, NOT the other way round.

Perhaps wisdom is in finding the middle ground—short of changing borders—in cooperation with other actors. This requires compromise and reestablishing a stable political framework in which different ethnic and religious groups (including Kurds particularly) are guaranteed full security, prosperity and cultural development. 

Double dilemma (or multiple dilemmas?)

For Turkey: Syria—and Iraq, to a lesser degree—actually the Middle East as a whole is a can of worms. A prospective ‘Kurdistan’ with the so-called ‘Kurdish corridor’ extending all the way to the Mediterranean would be a disaster for Turkey and probably also for the region. Common sense suggests complete withdrawal of Turkey from both Syria and Iraq as soon as possible and use of soft power more efficiently, effectively and wisely, in order to secure territorial integrity of both countries. But, as explained above, this is easier said than done. Besides, withdrawal from both countries would have to be done in cooperation with both Baghdad and more importantly with Damascus, something the current Turkish leadership has been adamant about not doing. On the other hand, Turkish government, while developing perfect relations with Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq and giving the impression of coming to terms with a prospective Rojava as long as it is restricted to the east of Euphrates, seeks the ownership of a safe zone (for Sunnis?) in northern Syria. Contributing to dismemberment of Iraq and Syria and inadvertently advancing the Kurdish project is a challenging dilemma for Turkey. However the Turkish leadership may come to believe that such negative aspects can reasonably be compensated by gaining Kurds to ‘Sunni block’ and securing a Sunni protectorate inside Syria and that this would be an optimal policy choice. More importantly, this policy could sell in Turkish domestic politics and may be perceived sympathetically by the majority of the governing party constituency.

For the United States: The position of the new US administration is no less difficult. As divided (and largely destroyed) Iraq and Syria having been eliminated as threats to Israel, Egypt firmly tamed and cooperative, once Turkish partnership is secured, Palestinians have nowhere to turn for assistance but Iran—and terrorist groups and movements. Fight against ISIL—as a catalyst—offered an historic opportunity to finally form ‘Kurdistan’. Arab opposition and resistance to this prospect is minimized by use of Iran as a threat and by manipulating deep-running sectarian anxieties in the ME. If Turkish leadership can be compromised and recruited to US (Western) policies and plans, the door to a perfect storm would be opened: Turkey regained to the West—at the expense of severing relations with Russia and regional countries, divided ME (at long last), smaller—and weaker—federative states, ‘Kurdistan’ as a Western protégé, Palestine under the direct control of one-state, Iran reduced to another Iraq with no nuclear programme and suffering from reintroduced sanctions, if not reduced to rubbles. This may sound like a Dreamliner of US global policy, IF it can be materialized. But, giving second thoughts, there would still be some complications of this scheme such as an undemocratic (moderate Islamist?) Turkey and stronger Saudi Arabia which has proven to be more than enthusiastic in supporting and promoting Salafi interpretation of Islam. The fundamental flaw of this policy is that it would inevitably increase already high levels of anti-Western and anti-American sentiments, benefit radical groups on both sides of the aisle (Sunni and Shi’a alike) and give a major boost to public support to terrorist groups throughout the world. Empowering groups they boast to ‘eradicate completely from the face of the Earth’ represents a dilemma for American policymakers. However, no policy is perfect.

Still, this is not a bilateral policy issue. There are more than two actors in this play, whose consent, if not approval and active cooperation, are needed. Even some NATO allies and others would not readily support any initiative by Turkey and the U.S.. Moreover, apart from the regional actors with immediate concerns, Arab world as a whole would get apprehensive about likely outcomes of a common US-Turkey intervention.

Besides, like Turkey, American politics is also deeply polarized and society divided. It is highly unlikely that either society can possibly tolerate an open-ended, even short-term commitment in Syria, without a clearly defined end-state and an exit strategy. …


The full report is available to 21st Century Turkey Institute members.

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