Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will visit Washington next week for his first face-to-face meeting with President Trump. A White House statement announcing the visit next Tuesday gave no hint of tensions, saying the two will “discuss how to further strengthen our bilateral relationship and deepen our cooperation to confront terrorism in all its forms.”
Although Turkey is a NATO ally and a key partner in the fight against Islamic State, an Oval Office encounter between a pair of headstrong leaders could nonetheless be an awkward one.
1. Kurds and dismay
Turkey responded angrily to a Pentagon announcement this week that the United States would move to equip and arm Kurdish fighters in Syria. The U.S. has long had a relationship with the YPG, or People’s Protection Units, operating under the umbrella of a larger armed Syrian rebel faction. Turkey, though, considers the YPG fighters to be terrorist comrades in arms of separatist Kurds across the border in Turkey, and tensions have been growing over the YPG’s role in the looming battle for Raqaa, capital of Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate. Turkey’s prime minister, Binali Yildirim, warned Wednesday that tighter U.S. ties with the YPG could lead to an unspecified “negative result.” Erdogan was quoted by Turkish media as saying he hoped the U.S. decision would be reversed at the earliest possible opportunity. Trump, then, needs to keep the Turkish leader close without undercutting his own military commanders, who consider the YPG the most effective allied ground fighting force in the confrontation with Islamic State.
2. Hail to the chief
Last month, Erdogan claimed victory — though a narrow one — in a nationwide referendum to vastly expand his constitutional powers. Although most Western governments and human rights groups viewed the measure as a heavy blow to democratic aspirations in Turkey, and although opposition parties challenged the result, Trump swiftly placed a congratulatory phone call to the Turkish leader. While that might have helped put the two men on a good personal footing, it played into the narrative of Trump as an admirer of authoritarian-minded leaders and a less-than-enthusiastic defender of democracy and human rights, both of which were previously pillars of U.S. foreign policy. Erdogan, meanwhile, continues to lash out at political foes as he smarts over failing to score a decisive win at the polls — a stance in some ways reminiscent of Trump’s continuing sensitivities over his receiving fewer popular votes than Hillary Clinton despite winning the electoral college vote.
3. Fugitive from justice?
After Erdogan emerged victorious from an attempted coup in July, he almost immediately cast blame on one man: the elderly self-exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, a onetime close ally who lives in Pennsylvania. In the intervening months, the U.S. has deflected Turkish demands for Gulen’s extradition to face charges of fomenting the coup, saying the decision is a legal one, not a political one, and therefore must make its way through the judicial system. Erdogan continues to seethe over this, especially as he felt that then-President Obama was not sufficiently supportive of the Turkish leader having weathered the attempted coup — or of the massive domestic crackdown on alleged conspiracists upon which Erdogan promptly embarked. The upside, for purposes of the Washington visit? Both the Turkish leader and Trump might be able to fall back on blaming Obama.
4. Flirtation, or something more?
In the past, Turkey has reliably responded to tensions in its ties with Washington by making overtures to Moscow. Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin have had their ups and downs, but they staged a very public reconciliation in August 2016, after nearly a year of sanctions-marked estrangement following Turkey’s shooting down a Russian fighter jet on the Syrian border. Russia and Turkey still remain on opposite sides of the Syrian conflict; Putin is the principal ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, while Turkey wants him gone. Turkey also joined the U.S. in condemning Assad forces’ use of a banned nerve agent in an attack on a Syrian village — a strike that the U.S. accused Moscow of either condoning or abetting. But Turkey and Russia have lately been cooperating — Putin and Erdogan met last week — most recently on the creation if “de-escalation” zones in Syria, with Turkey, Russia and Iran acting as guarantors — a move of which the U.S. has been wary. Ankara and Moscow are also in talks over Turkey’s procuring of missiles for a domestic air-defense system.
5. Blurred lines
Although Trump says he has formally separated himself from his far-flung business empire, ethics experts say the president has not gone nearly far enough. So there is continuing scrutiny of political decisions — particularly in the foreign arena — that could affect Trump’s personal and corporate financial interests. Turkey is a major case in point: critics including U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, have expressed concerns over Trump Towers Istanbul — a massive two-building complex in Turkey’s commercial capital that Trump does not own, but with whose developers he struck a major licensing deal. Trump’s sons, who now run the Trump Organization, have recently pursued a hotel-chain project with the backing of a Turkish-linked real estate firm. Finally, lucrative consulting work for the Turkish government by Trump’s fired national security advisor, Michael Flynn, was not properly disclosed, officials have said — and thus is one of the legal swords still hanging over Flynn, who also remains a key figure in various investigations of Russian meddling in last year’s presidential election.