Strained Ties for Close Allies: Erdogan vs. Trump

Against a backdrop of strained diplomatic ties and an increasingly fraught relationship both personal and country-wise, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to Washington to iron out a long list of disagreements with President Donald Trump and his administration. The controversial summit happened despite calls by many American politicians and activists advising President Trump to call off Erdogan’s visit. This comes after Ankara’s ongoing military operation against the Kurds in northeastern Syria was launched a few weeks ago, targeting YPJ/SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces), Washington’s main Kurdish ally in the fight against ISIS in Syria.

Strained ties, breakthrough or breakdown?

Turkish-American military and security ties took a nosedive this year after Turkey took delivery of a Russian-made S-400 sophisticated air defence missile system in July. Ankara’s intransigent stance over the issue despite strong warnings from the US and other NATO nations not to go ahead with the deal, which breached NATO rules and ethics, instigated calls among some members of the Alliance to kick Turkey out of NATO altogether. Other controversial topics present at the table were Turkish unilateral oil and gas explorations in the Mediterranean off the coast of Cyprus, and Ankara’s threat to deport ISIS detainees – in Kurdish-controlled areas in Syria where the Turkish military operation “Peace Spring” is underway – to their EU countries of nationality.

Trump’s decision to pull out US troops from much of northeast Syria and leave his Kurdish allies in the open to fend off against an overwhelming Turkish onslaught has drawn sharp criticism from both Democrats and Republican politicians alike. Erdogan’s visit to Washington DC, comes fresh on the heels of yet another crisis phase in an increasingly fraught relationship. Trump’s all-too-familiar response was to throw a 100 billion US dollar worth of trade deal with Erdogan in an attempt to dampen mounting US pressure and criticism over the Turkish President’s visit. Trump himself has threatened to deport ISIS prisoners and land them at EU nations’ doorstep unless the Europeans pledged decent financial support to SDF who is guarding some 10,000 ISIS detainees in northern Syria, mainly at Al-Hole camp. He further struck a belligerent tone on Twitter, threatening to “obliterate” Turkey’s economy if Ankara did anything “off-limits” to the Kurdish fighters.

Trump’s harsh tweets vs generous treats

Trump seems to have softened up his harsh rhetoric as Erdogan and his wife Emine arrived at the White House, presenting his Turkish guest with a multi-billion trade deal to circumnavigate any potential punitive sanctions against Ankara. Such a move is bound to erode Trump’s popularity among American voters before the next presidential elections in the USA, particularly after Erdogan declared that he had handed back a ‘tough guy’ letter to Trump in response to the latter’s harshly-worded letter delivered by Vice President Mike Pence to Erdogan in Ankara 9 October before Turkey launched its military operation against allied Kurdish forces in Syria.

The two leaders appeared at odds, with Erdogan after his meeting with Trump Wednesday branding Kurdish forces allied with Washington as ‘terrorists’ and bringing up the extradition issue of Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who lives in the USA, blaming him for the failed 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. With Washington’s continued refusal to extradite Gulen, and Ankara’s criticism of Trump’s invitation to Washington of SDF Chief Mazloum Abdi, considered a “terrorist” by Turkey, the two sides appeared as at loggerheads as ever, despite what some call a “special relationship” between Erdogan and Trump that has seen the White House tread lightly with punitive measures urged by US lawmakers and allies.

What will Syrian Kurds gain now?

The Turkish army and its so-called Syrian National Army militia which appeared to include some former ISIS terrorists in recently released footage, have been accused of war crimes against Kurdish civilians and fighters alike, as they conducted sweeping violence across northern Syria, carried out kidnapping and summary executions and even ISIS-style beheading  and mutilation operations in brutal revenge against the Kurds who rushed to the Russians and the Assad government in Damascus for protection.

The vast majority of Syrian Kurds feel betrayed and abandoned by the US administration, and that following the withdrawal of US troops, Turkey was given the green light by Trump to advance across its southern border on October 9 to establish a safe zone, free of Kurdish YPG fighters- viewed by Turkey as an offshoot of the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), considered by Ankara and many Western countries as a “terrorist” organisation – whose campaign for autonomy has claimed the lives of  tens of thousands of people over the past four decades or so. It is not utterly clear what the Syrian Kurds will gain, if anything, from this US-Turkish summit at the White House, especially in light of the rapidly diminishing trust they once had in their supposedly main ally in Washington who left them in the open against a mercilessly advancing Turkish killing machine.