Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Erdogan leaves Trump empty-handed

Erdogan was forced to concede on almost everything, even withstanding Trump’s repeated mispronunciation of his name during the press conference.

Photo: Getty Images/Pool
Photo: Getty Images/Pool

The language at the press conference following their meeting earlier this week may have been conciliatory, but there is no masking the tensions between US President Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The two strongmen lavished praise on each another, confirming their partnership and commitment to democracy: 'The American and Turkish peoples have been friends and allies for many, many decades,' said Trump, and 'the relations between Turkey and the United States have been erected upon common democratic values and common interests,' said Erdogan.

But the list of grievances Turkey brought to the meeting in Washington on Tuesday was long and ultimately, Erdogan seems to have walked away empty-handed.

He had come with a host of complaints – chief among them the recent decision by Trump to arm Kurdish factions allied to the People's Protection Units (YPG), the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the most effective fighting force against Islamic State (IS) in Syria. The PYD is affiliated with the separatist Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) in Turkey, which both the Turks and the US regard as a terrorist organisation and with which Turkey has been involved in a bloody 33-year conflict that has escalated in the last 18 months. The fear (not unfounded) is that US arms will wind up in the hands of Kurdish militants to be used against Turkey.

A week before, Erdogan had signalled veiled threats over the decision to arm the Kurds. 'We want to believe that our allies will prefer to side with us, not with a terrorist organisation,' Erdogan told a news conference in Ankara, saying he would convey Turkey's stance to Trump, and that he hoped that recently taken decisions might change by the time he visited the US. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told reporters the decision 'will surely have consequences and will yield a negative result for the US as well'.

But ultimately Erdogan was outmanoeuvred by Trump, and those hinted-at 'consequences' proved limited. Turkey's nuclear option in this disagreement would be to threaten to close the Incirlik airbase, which acts as an important launching and refuelling pad for US planes striking IS positions in northern Syria and Iraq. To do so would send a strong message, but ultimately not work in Turkey's favour. Aside from escalating the disagreement to crisis point between the two allies, such a move would also leave Turkey facing accusations that it was hindering the fight against IS, while the US has other regional airbase options it could turn to.

Turkey could also decide to stoke inter-Kurdish tensions by extending its push into northern Iraq and stepping up its strikes against the PKK there. But that also risks putting Turkey on a direct collision course with the US and once again distracting from the fight against IS.

Turkey could have offered a third option. By agreeing to go it alone in Syria and sending in more ground troops and support aircraft in Syria against IS, Erdogan could have removed the need for the Kurds in the equation at all. But logistically, to do so would mean all-out conflict with the Kurds (and by proxy, the US) as Turkish troops made their way through Kurdish-held territory in northern Syria on the path to Raqqa, potentially distracting from the fight against IS. Turkey is wary of engaging IS directly, having been targeted by the group inside Turkish territory already. Moreover, any unilateral moves by Turkey to invade Syria would be deeply unpopular in Turkey, at a time when the country remains polarised over a recent referendum in favour of extending Erdogan's autocratic powers.

Erdogan's calls for the extradition of rival and Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen from the US, too, appears to have made little headway. Ankara blames Gulen for masterminding last July's failed coup attempt.

In the end, Erdogan was forced to concede on almost everything, even withstanding Trump's repeated mispronunciation of his name during the press conference. The Turkish president went away with a lukewarm assurance that the US would remain vigilant against 'terror groups' – 'We support Turkey in the fight against terror groups like ISIS and the PKK, and ensure they have no safe quarter,' said Trump. 'We also appreciate Turkey's leadership in seeking an end to the horrific killing in Syria.' Trump may have offered assurances that any arms supplied to Kurdish factions would not be used against Turkey – something he is not in a position to guarantee.

What we can expect in Turkey in response is more of the same. With opposition newspapers gagged and thousands arrested in Turkey following the failed July coup attempt, pro-government press has been awash with anti-US sentiment, fuelled by conspiratorial anti-western rhetoric from Turkish leaders. In recent months, Western NGOs operating in Turkey have also been harassed by officials with one, Mercy Corps, informed it no longer had permission to work in Turkey.

If Erdogan walked away with anything, it would be that he can continue his crackdown against dissidents without interference from the US. Turkey's continued human rights violations and slow slide into deeper autocratic rule had become a point of disagreement under the previous Obama administration, but Trump has signalled he has no intention of meddling in other countries' affairs, and stayed silent on the issue of a nationwide purge that has seen tens of thousands of people rounded up in Turkey.

Elsewhere in Washington, Erdogan's armed security personnel attacked and brutalised peaceful anti-Erdogan demonstrators outside the Turkish Embassy, in a violent scuffle that injured nine. In a sign of just how polarised politics in Turkey have become, Erdogan's goons were unperturbed about being on foreign soil as they practised what has become a well-rehearsed response to opposition protesters.

At home, Turkish media hailed the visit as a great success, despite all the signs indicating that in fact, it was quite the opposite for a defeated Erdogan. The US trumped Turkey in leverage and might.

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