Once again, a phone call between President Trump and a foreign leader is jangling international alliances, roiling domestic politics in the United States and raising uneasy questions about foreign policy in the hands of an unpredictable U.S. head of state whose personal business interests might not be transparent.
Trump’s interlocutor this time was Turkey, not Ukraine. And fallout was continuing Tuesday over the abrupt White House announcement late Sunday that Trump — apparently at the behest of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — had decided to pull back U.S. troops from northern Syria, seemingly setting the stage for a Turkish incursion.
That would leave Syrian Kurdish allies, who were instrumental in the fight against Islamic State, vulnerable to being overrun or slaughtered by Turkish forces, who consider the Syrian Kurds to be allied with “terrorist” counterparts in Turkey.
Trump, facing a storm of criticism from even normally pliant GOP lawmakers over the apparent abandonment of a fighting force that had repeatedly proved its loyalty to the U.S., issued a series of bellicose statements warning Turkey not to do anything “that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits.”
Those threats drew a sharp response from Turkey. The country’s vice president, Fuat Oktay, on Tuesday voiced his government’s continuing determination to fight Syrian Kurdish fighters and create a zone in northern Syria that would allow Turkey to resettle Syrian refugees it has taken in.
“Where Turkey’s security is concerned, we determine our own path, but set our own limits,” Oktay said in a speech in the Turkish capital, Ankara.
By then, Trump was showing signs of backpedaling. In a series of tweets Tuesday, he made conciliatory reference to Turkey’s cooperation in matters such as the release a year ago of a jailed American pastor, and the country’s status as an important trading partner and North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally. At the same time, though, he continued to hint at his ability to do serious harm to Turkey’s flagging economy, which is emerging as a point of serious political vulnerability for Erdogan.
Here’s some background about the U.S. relationship with Turkey, and what might lie ahead for this troubled alliance.
Syria is not the only sore point
Although Trump’s views on Syria have brought a new level of turbulence to U.S. dealings with Turkey, Ankara has long been a prickly, problematic ally. Turkey has been part of NATO since 1952, but recent years have seen Erdogan’s agenda frequently clash with that of the United States and other alliance members in Europe. As the long and bloody conflict in Syria was gathering pace, Turkey allowed its southern border to become a virtual superhighway for foreign militants heading to join the battle. And Turkey has long made clear its anger and frustration over the U.S. refusal to hand over U.S. resident Fethullah Gulen, an elderly cleric and onetime Erdogan ally whom the president suspects of fomenting a 2016 coup attempt against him.
Turkey also played a peripheral part in one of the Trump administration’s first scandals: Michael Flynn, fired after a 24-day tenure as national security advisor, worked during the campaign as an unregistered foreign agent for Turkey. Flynn is awaiting sentencing for lying to the FBI about his contacts with the then-Russian ambassador to Washington.
Trump and Erdogan
The 65-year-old Turkish leader, in power for nearly two decades, emerged as an early exemplar of the friendships Trump eagerly sought to forge with authoritarian-minded leaders. Other Western governments have been sharply critical of Erdogan’s sweeping crackdown on dissent over the last three years, and a series of anti-democratic moves aimed at consolidating his powers. But when Erdogan visited the White House in May 2017, Trump made no mention of topics such as Turkey’s dismal record on human rights.
During Erdogan’s visit, the White House also chose to overlook an ugly incident outside the residence of Turkey’s ambassador to Washington, when the Turkish leader’s bodyguards beat and dispersed protesters who were across the street, not on the diplomatic premises. Footage of the arriving Erdogan raised the possibility that he ordered the attack. More than a dozen of the bodyguards were indicted, but the charges were later dropped.
Now the Turkish leader is on track to visit Nov. 13, Trump announced Tuesday.
Veneer of friendship
Despite Trump’s praise of his “great friendship” with Erdogan, the two leaders’ relationship has been a highly transactional one. The most recent high-profile example of that was the release of an evangelical Christian pastor, Andrew Brunson, who was freed by a Turkish court in October 2018 after a 24-month detention. That was rewarded with a White House invitation for Erdogan.
But when it comes to Trump and Erdogan, power plays are as common as shows of camaraderie. Before Brunson’s release, the two countries had engaged in a testy financial back-and-forth, with Washington slapping Turkey’s justice and interior ministers with financial sanctions and sharply raising tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminum. The Turks announced retaliatory measures.
Business ties in Turkey
Trump’s threats to “destroy and obliterate” Turkey’s economy carry a potential personal downside: his substantial business interests in the country.
The full extent of the U.S. president’s holdings and investments in Turkey are not publicly known, since Trump, on several fronts, has moved to fight the release of his tax returns. However, some of his business ties have been publicly disclosed by the president, his adult children or by business partners.
While he was running for president in 2015, Trump acknowledged in a Breitbart radio interview that a big Trump-branded residential and business project might pose “a little conflict of interest” for him. He does not own Trump Towers Istanbul outright, but the two glass high-rises are part of a lucrative licensing arrangement with a wealthy Turkish magnate, Aydin Dogan, who was once an Erdogan foe but now supports the Turkish president. Mother Jones magazine has reported that the Trump Organization, which the president still profits from, has earned up to $17 million in royalties from the deal.
Social media, though, offers a window into a long-running relationship. In 2012, Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter who is now a senior White House aide, offered an effusive shout-out to Erdogan on Twitter, thanking the then-prime minister for attending the opening of Trump Towers.
The government of Turkey, like many others around the world, is also reported to have held major events and booked stays by government officials at Trump International Hotel, the president’s luxury property a few blocks from the White House.
Economic threats from the U.S. president cannot be taken lightly by Erdogan, whose grip on power remains tight, but whose ruling party this year suffered a humiliating setback in municipal elections in Istanbul. Economic resentments probably played a role in the triumph of opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu, who won a do-over vote — forced by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party — to become mayor of Istanbul. The next time Washington needs something, Erdogan and his allies are likely to exact a price.
In the meantime, Turkey seems determined to avoid the appearance of bowing down before the United States. In a token of that, the Ankara government this week summoned the top U.S. diplomat in the country, Charge d’Affaires Jeffrey Hovenier, to the Foreign Ministry to complain about the U.S. Embassy’s Twitter account “liking” a tweet that upset the leadership of Erdogan’s party, as well as an allied nationalist one. The diplomat apologized and said it had been a mistake.