Why Trump cancelled his G20 formal meeting with Erdoğan

On Thursday, as U.S. President Donald Trump flew to the Argentinian capital of Buenos Aires to attend the G20 summit, the White House told its press pool that his scheduled formal meeting at the summit with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, had been rearranged as a short, pull-aside meeting. 

With little chance that anything of substance will be discussed during such a meeting, this can be taken more or less as a politer alternative to cancelling altogether.

No official reason has been given for the change, but events over the last few days give us enough clues to go on.

With statements from Ankara frequently taking an aggressive tone towards the United States, the White House may simply have decided to spare itself the indignity of a formal meeting.

During a speech to his party’s deputies in parliament on Tuesday, Erdoğan said the extremist jihadist Islamic State did not exist in Syria, calling the jihadists remaining in the country a “small number of gangs” trained and equipped by large foreign states to sow chaos in the region.

By saying so Erdoğan had explicitly labelled the United States’ stated reason for maintaining a presence in Syria – to decisively defeat the Islamic State – as nothing more than an excuse. The statement came just as Washington announced plans to establish observation outposts in the predominantly Kurdish areas of northern Syria, bordering Turkey, where the majority of U.S. troops are stationed.

Erdoğan went on to say that the “terrorist organisations and the powers supporting them” had used the Islamic State as a pretext to invade the region and claim its oil resources, adding that if these groups simply departed, the problems facing Syria would solve themselves.

It is difficult not to see the remarks as an explicit rebuke to the United States, whose support of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) Erdoğan and his government have condemned for months. Ankara defines the group as a terrorist organisation due to its links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), whose decades of armed struggle against Turkish armed forces have earned it a terrorist designation in both Ankara and Washington.

In other words, Erdoğan was pinning the blame for the Islamic State and other problems of the region on the United States, the country that up until recently was considered Turkey’s greatest ally.

Also on November 27, the Turkish National Security Council meeting, chaired by Erdoğan himself, produced a statement that once again set its sights on the United States, declaring that the most serious threat to Turkey in Syria was found in the area to the east of the River Euphrates, a region controlled by the YPG and its affiliates with U.S. backing.

Besides this, there were statements by Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and Erdoğan before he began the journey to Argentina insisting – for the thousandth time since the deal was signed last December – that Turkey would go ahead and buy Russian S-400 missile defence systems. The arms deal has been a source of major consternation for Washington, which has gone so far as to threaten sanctions if Ankara goes through with it. Yet Erdoğan, undeterred, has expressed again his determination to buy the weapons, and has vowed to use local currencies and not dollars when he does so.

The tightening links with Russia were on display again last week when Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Turkey to celebrate the completion of the underwater section of the Turk Stream project. The new pipeline will transport billions of cubic metres of Russian natural gas to Turkey and on to Europe, and by doing so will increase Russia’s hold over the European energy market, another undesirable outcome for the United States and European Union.

Turkish-U.S. relations had been expected to thaw since October, when Ankara released U.S. Pastor Andrew Brunson, who had been held in Turkish prison on terror and espionage charges for two years. Yet it seems despite this, and the U.S. attempt to appease Turkey by assigning large bounties to three PKK leaders, relations have remained on the same downward slide.

Just this week the Pentagon presented to Congress its report on the impact of blocking U.S. weapons sales to Turkey, a move devised by a bipartisan group of lawmakers in both houses in response to Turkey’s S-400 purchase. The parts of the report leaked to the press reveal that not only does Turkey stand to be removed from the production chain of the new F-35 fighter jets if it goes through with the deal, it could also see its supply of U.S.-built F-16 parts and participation in other projects suspended.

Meanwhile, no progress appears to have been made on Erdoğan’s request for the extradition of Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen or his followers resident in the United States. Erdoğan’s government has accused Gülen’s movement of attempting to infiltrate state institutions and take over the government, and plotting a coup attempt in July 2016 when this plan failed.

With all these sources of contention holding the two states apart, the real question is why a meeting in Argentina should take place in the first place.

Apparently the White House has decided that, in light of all of this, a meeting at the G20 with Erdoğan would do nothing to benefit them, but would be held by the Turkish president as another victory.

The S-400 deal will be finalised, or called off, in the year 2019. While Washington is still of the opinion that Turkey can be dissuaded from the purchase, it is clear that there will be no option in the event it goes through but to remove Turkey from the F-35 project. At the same time, there is every chance that Turkey will become even more aggressive in its stance towards the United States in the Syrian Kurdish regions east of the Euphrates next year.

The outline of U.S.-Turkish relations for the year to come is perhaps already visible now.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.