ISTANBUL: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets Donald Trump on Tuesday in Washington for the first time as president, hoping to entice the American leader into major policy shifts to solidify a crucial but increasingly strained relationship.
Ties became poisoned in the last months of the Barack Obama administration by venomous disputes over US support for Kurdish fighters in Syria and the presence in the US of the Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen whom Erdogan blames for last year’s July 15 failed coup.
But analysts say that Erdogan faces a major struggle to convince Trump to change tack, raising the prospect of long-term tensions between the US and NATO’s main Muslim member.
Preparations for the visit were inauspicious, with Washington announcing for the first time it would arm Syrian Kurdish fighters who Ankara considers to be terrorists.
Ankara initially had high expectations of the relationship between Erdogan and Trump, preferring to forget the new US leader’s most radical campaign utterances and banking on a strong personal chemistry between the two men.
The Turkish president was hugely encouraged when Trump congratulated him on winning the April 16 referendum on enhancing his powers, an enthusiasm that contrasted with the reticence of not just EU leaders but the US State Department.
Burhanettin Duran, head of the pro-government SETA think tank, described the meeting with Erdogan as a “golden opportunity” for Trump to “fix his predecessor’s mistakes.”
But Erdogan will now have to untangle a web of problems, which also include the arrest in the United States of Turkish Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab and the chief executive of Halkbank Mehmet Hakan Atilla on charges of helping Iran violate sanctions.
“I am afraid the meeting could devolve into a diatribe of complaints ranging from the YPG to Reza Zarrab to Halkbank,” Aaron Stein, resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, told AFP.
‘Courtship of Trump’
Turkish officials repeatedly spoke of a “new page” in relations after the bickering under Obama but the Trump administration’s announcement that the US would arm the Syrian Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) cast a heavy shadow over such optimism.
Obama’s policy to support the YPG as the most effective fighting force against jihadists in Syria enraged Ankara, who regard the group as the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which has waged an insurgency inside Turkey since 1984.
The YPG arming announcement was made just after three of the most powerful men in Turkey—army chief Hulusi Akar, spy supremo Hakan Fidan and presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin—held talks at the White House with national security chief H.R. McMaster.
“It’s obvious that the United States has sent a clear message of ‘we are going to go our own way’ on Syria,” wrote Mehmet Yilmaz, columnist for the Hurriyet daily.
Erdogan said he would bring up his concerns with Trump and called on Washington to immediately reverse the decision, indicating Turkey was still interested in a joint operation to oust the jihadists from their bastion of Raqa so long as it does not include the YPG. AFP
Yet his reaction was relatively low-key compared with previous fiery utterances and Stein said he was “holding fire” until after the Trump meeting.
“Erdogan has invested a lot of credibility in his courtship of Donald Trump…. I would expect Erdogan to try and ‘talk Trump out of this’ but even he has to know that this won’t work,” said Stein.
The deterioration in relations under Obama has meant the two sides failed to invigorate economic ties while anti-Americanism in Turkey has sometimes reached alarming levels, especially in the pro-government press.
Meanwhile, Turkey has also pushed ahead with an increasingly close relationship with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to the alarm of its Western allies.
“Once a ‘model partnership’, the relationship deteriorated into a dysfunctional one with unsatisfactory results for both sides,” said Kemal Kirisci of the Brookings Institution and Asli Aydintasbas of the European Council on Foreign Relations in a study of Turkey-US relations.
Erdogan has also made clear he expects steps from Washington over the fate of Gulen, who denies any role in the coup but whom Turkey wants to see extradited and face trial at home.
Yet analysts warn that Trump—even if he wanted to—cannot simply promise Erdogan that Gulen will be extradited as the process depends on the independent American judicial system.
“In the case of Gulen, the US needs to be clear in terms of what it can and cannot do,” said Aydintasbas and Kirisci.
The same goes for Zarrab, who was arrested in Miami in March last year and was linked to a 2013 corruption scandal that ensnared the government when Erdogan was prime minister.
According to the New York Times, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani met Erdogan in Turkey in April in search of a resolution to the Zarrab case.