For Turkey's strongman Erdoğan, trouble seeing eye to eye with Trump

Why We Wrote This

Behind closed doors (or on the phone), what do world leaders expect to accomplish with each other? In the latest US-Turkish clash over Syria, unmet expectations played a central role.

Mehmet Kocacik/Kirikhan/DHA/AP
A Turkish convoy carrying tanks and armored personnel carriers destined for a possible offensive in Syria moves in Hatay province, southeastern Turkey, Jan. 14, 2019. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday that President Trump's threat to devastate Turkey's economy if it attacks US-backed Kurdish fighters in Syria underscores America's commitment to its partners.

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For President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, getting President Trump to agree to pull US troops out of Syria was the culmination of months of maneuvering to improve Turkey’s ties with Washington. The apparent deal was concluded by phone, in a manner suited to Mr. Erdoğan, one authoritative leader to another. He was jubilant: “Right now, Turkey’s power in foreign policy is an epic being written by destiny,” he said days later. “And it is being written with the world’s giants.” But then the deal fell through, with the US slowing the withdrawal and demanding protection for Syria’s Kurds. Erdoğan became angry, and Trump threatening. What happened? “Erdoğan made the mistake of thinking he can handle all of the Syria file with Mr. Trump personally,” says Turkey expert Aslı Aydıntaşbaş, while Trump had a limited grasp of what he had given away. “You have the problem of a leader who wants to be the prime interlocutor – Trump – but isn’t at all clear on the facts that he is negotiating.” says Ms. Aydıntaşbaş. “It’s malpractice on all counts, diplomatically and politically.”

It was a jubilant moment of victory for Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

In a mid-December telephone call, he appeared to persuade President Trump to upend years of American policy in Syria by stepping away from US-backed Kurdish militias that Turkey calls terrorists and handing the reins to America’s NATO ally.

“You know what? It’s yours,” Mr. Trump reportedly said of Syria. “I’m leaving.”

For Turkey’s leader, the diplomatic achievement was the culmination of months of maneuvering to improve ties with Washington, which have cycled between bad and worse since the Obama years.

It was also a deal cut in a manner suited to Mr. Erdoğan and other heads of state in the region: one authoritative leader to another.

“Right now, Turkey’s power in foreign policy is an epic being written by destiny. And it is being written with the world’s giants,” Erdoğan said days later in a speech.

But the jubilation was short-lived for Erdoğan and turned to surprise and finally anger. Top US officials repeatedly rolled back Trump’s promises to Erdoğan – and finally Trump himself tweeted a warning on Jan. 12 that he would “devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds.”

The tone of the president’s tweet did not play well on the streets of Istanbul this week. “Trump sent another aggressive comment,” says a young Turkish entrepreneur, who requested anonymity. “His style is very toxic,” he adds, shaking his head in disbelief.

Turkey immediately warned the United States, in turn, not to make a “fatal mistake” and that it “will not be intimidated by any threats.”

But eyes rolled among Turks tired of years of roller-coaster politics, as the prospect of another bruising economic battle began to loom.

It was US sanctions imposed in August, after all, when Turkey refused to release an American evangelical pastor charged with trying to topple the state, that precipitated a sharp fall in Turkey’s currency.

“Don’t make fun of us,” one Istanbul coffee shop owner says half-jokingly when noting how a friend was tightening his belt a notch. The joke was about being hungry, but with far broader connotations about forces beyond Turkish control.

A Syria policy in flux

The diplomatic brawl is the latest case study of the challenge of doing business with a mercurial White House, where every objective appears to be a constantly moving target.

Turkey has watched top US officials move the goalposts on Syria policy from the commander-in-chief’s apparent promise of an unconditional and speedy withdrawal. Not only has the timeline for the removal of the 2,200 US troops been extended, but conditions have been imposed on any Turkish military move into northern Syria: to not attack the US-allied Syrian Kurdish militia that has been fighting the Islamic State (ISIS).

Burhan Ozbilici/AP
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan acknowledges the MP's of his ruling Justice and Development Party after delivering a speech in parliament in Ankara, Jan. 15, 2019.

“It’s an uncharted era in foreign policy, because you don’t know who you have to deal with in Washington in order to advance your own national security objectives,” says Sinan Ülgen, a former Turkish diplomat and head of the Center for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM), a think tank in Istanbul.

“Before it was clear. The answer may have been yes or no, but at least you got an answer, and … were pretty confident that it reflected the administration point of view,” says Mr. Ülgen. “These are really extreme reversals that make it difficult to construct sound policy.”

One result is that Turkey – and other nations, by extension – can’t be sure that US “messaging is credible, if you have a president who within days changes his position, and members of the administration [then] try to undermine the president’s position,” says Ülgen.

Diplomatic ‘malpractice’

Another lesson is that doing a deal with the boss may not mean that you’ve actually done a deal, even though that is how Turkey’s president and most regional leaders have long operated.

Trump has expressed personal admiration for Erdoğan in the past and has approved of other authoritarian chiefs from Cairo and Manila to Riyadh and Moscow. Trump likewise has sought to exude a manner from the Oval Office telling would-be deal-makers that his decision is all that matters.

“Erdoğan made the mistake of thinking he can handle all of the Syria file with Trump personally, and his personal relationship with him,” says Aslı Aydıntaşbaş, a Turkey expert in Istanbul with the European Council on Foreign Relations.

That bet appeared to pay off, until it became clear that Trump had a limited grasp of what he had given away to Erdoğan, she says. “You have the problem of a leader who wants to be the prime interlocutor – Trump – but isn’t at all clear on the facts that he is negotiating,” says Ms. Aydıntaşbaş. “It’s malpractice on all counts, diplomatically and politically.”

So a conversation that was likely designed to appease Turkey and smooth the relationship led instead to another clash, she says.

“It is these cyclical crises that are marking the relationship, in part because there are volatile leaders involved,” says Aydıntaşbaş. “Erdoğan himself is a mercurial man; there is no doubt about it. He has a volcanic anger. But Trump is not only mercurial [and] has a volcanic anger, but he is also blowing hot and cold. He makes Erdoğan look like a steady hand.”

Dispute over Syrian Kurds

A key source of bilateral friction is Turkey’s opposition to US military support in northern Syria for the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian Kurdish militia with organic ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). That Turkish group is on the US terrorist list and has waged a battle against the Turkish state for decades.

Turkey fears that US weapons given to the YPG to fight ISIS will also bolster the PKK and that Turkish forces will be waging war on their southern border against the YPG once the Americans leave and ISIS is contained.

Turkey claims the YPG, PKK, ISIS, and Al Qaeda are all “terrorists” in equal measure, and analysts here say the capitulation by Trump during the December telephone call was taken by Erdoğan to mean that Turkish armed forces would be able to take them on or, at the very least, push them back beyond a buffer zone.

After Erdoğan vowed in a speech that the PKK and ISIS would be “wiped out” in the coming months, one online reader commented on the Habertürk website: “This is what MANLINESS looks like, Thank you, CHIEF.” 

But then Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, said that conditions were attached, that the US needed guarantees that Turkey would not attack the YPG. During a visit to Ankara last week, he was snubbed by Erdoğan, who said he would never agree to such conditions.

Damage control

In a first step at damage control, Trump and Erdoğan spoke by phone again Monday and held a “very positive conversation,” Erdoğan told ruling party lawmakers on Tuesday. But he noted his surprise, too, that striking a deal with Trump was not enough.

“Our hope increased with the departure of certain names in the [Trump] administration who did not look warmly at the positive trend in US-Turkey relations with regards to Syria,” said Erdoğan.

He added that there had been “cracks here and there, but we did not place much importance on it, because we know our real interlocutor was Mr. Trump.”

Erdoğan’s aides made the point more sharply, with adviser Yasin Aktay saying the US had been “a highly unreliable partner.”

“The problems and misunderstandings between the US and Turkey are results of the confusion and cacophony between the actors at different levels of the US administration and institutions,” Mr. Aktay told Al Jazeera. “Washington fights one terrorist group, Daesh [ISIS], while backing another one, the YPG. Such inconsistencies in US policies decrease the country’s reputation as a global power.”

That assessment is far from the heady days when Trump was first elected in 2016, when the Turkish leadership hoped Erdoğan and Trump would find a useful chemistry together, with glue perhaps provided by Trump’s then-national security adviser Michael Flynn, whose public lobbying benefited the Turkish government.

Of all the clashes since, one low point came in August, when Trump imposed sanctions on Turkey for not releasing the evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson, held for two years and charged with trying to overthrow the Turkish state.

Erdoğan countered with tariffs on Harley-Davidson motorcycles and other US goods, and Mr. Brunson was finally released in October, prompting a new chumminess between Trump and Erdoğan.

The Khashoggi affair

Also in October, the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul was seen here not just as a way to weaken Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), analysts say, but also to win points with Trump by playing it in such a way that the crown prince and his friendship with Trump would not be irreversibly crippled.

“The Turkish strategy was certainly to weaken MBS, but even more than that to earn political credits in Washington by insinuating to Trump that Turkey is allowing a freedom of action – and not pressuring Trump in a way that would be inimical to his relationship with MBS,” says analyst Ülgen.

It was a fine line, and therefore “quite an achievement on the Turkish side.”

But if Trump had overstepped in his promises to Erdoğan, the way to fix it “is not with this very belligerent Twitter diplomacy, essentially targeting a fellow NATO country with economic devastation,” says Ülgen. “That is unheard of.”

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