Erdoğan’s Turkey embodies Trump’s idea of foreign policy

Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan is on a roll. The Turkish military operation in northern Syria is so far delivering the goods - Syrian Kurdish forces have been damaged, Turkish opposition parties divided and the key international players have accommodated Erdoğan. 

The ceasefire deal Turkey struck with the United States last month amounted to an endorsement of what Turkey calls the safety zone it aims to set up in northern Syria east of the River Euphrates. Erdoğan’s Sochi summit with Putin days later ratified the new status quo in northeast Syria.

Turkish troops and their Syrian Arab proxies assumed control of the strip between the border towns of Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn. Russia and the Syrian government took hold over the remainder of the Turkish-Syrian border.

Several hundred U.S. troops remain deployed further south, in Deir al-Zor province. “We are keeping the oil. We have the oil. The oil is secure. We left troops behind only for the oil,” Trump said to reporters after meeting Erdoğan in Washington on Nov. 13. What he failed to mention is that the continued U.S. military presence in the region also helps to check Iran.

Erdoğan’s visit to Washington, criticised by everyone bemoaning the United States’ cold-blooded abandonment of the Kurds, rests on a clear-cut logic.

Aside from Syria, chief amongst the issues of dispute between the United States and Turkey is the S-400 surface-to-air missiles that Ankara bought from Russia. In essence, Erdoğan wants Trump to be his advocate before Congress and hoping to avoid the automatic sanctions the purchase should incur and ideally lift Turkey’s suspension from the programme to build F-35 fighter jets. It is not clear what exactly the Turkish president is offering Trump in return. 

The chances are Erdoğan is splitting hairs and playing for time by promising to delay the shipment of the remaining S-400 batteries, or perhaps arguing that the system has not been activated yet. Erdoğan’s calculation is that any concession, symbolic though it may be, could be sold as a major victory. To that end, Trump hosted a meeting between the Turkish leader and select Republican senators, notably Lindsey Graham and Jim Risch, who have been spearheading efforts to sanction Turkey.

As expected, the White House powwow proved inconclusive. At the press conference in its wake, Trump chose to dance around the issue saying that the purchase “creates very serious challenges for us ... but we talk consistently. Hopefully we will resolve”.

Do not hold your breath. Even the U.S. president’s allies in Congress would be reluctant to cut slack to Erdoğan and ultimately the Russians. Long-standing tensions will persist, even if senators reaffirmed their wish to keep Turkey firmly in NATO. To deflect attention from the S-400 issue, Trump will continue to play up other items such as a potential trade deal with Turkey or anti-terrorism operation.

Kicking the can down the road is precisely what Erdoğan wants. His game plan is to defer and delay as long as possible. In reality, Turkey does not want to choose between Russia and the United States. Erdoğan believes the best way to serve the national interest, which at this stage is more or less synonymous with his continued hold on power, is to profit from links with both.

Turkey behaves like a NATO member when it suits it and goes it alone when it does not. It teams up with Moscow on some issues, whether out of necessity or out of choice, and competes on others. That has been the case for a decade and more. It just became more obvious in the last couple of years, in no small part because of the deteriorating relations between Russia and the West. Turkey’s balancing act was much more easy to strike in former times when ties were in a better shape.

In a sense, Erdoğan’s Turkey is the embodiment of the Trumpian ideal of foreign policy.  Everyone is a rival as well as a potential partner. There are no stable alliances anchored in common values or lasting commitments. What there are instead are transactions in which each party bargains hard and tries to pocket the bulk of the rewards. The reason why Erdoğan is so successful in his personal dealings with Trump is that the Turkish president knows how to speak Trump’s language.

It is not only that the current tenant of the White House is in awe with the all-powerful leader of Turkey and his ilk ("We have a great relationship, both personally and with the country of Turkey.") It goes beyond Erdoğan’s exceptional ability to read and use Trump to his own advantage. Every politician worth his or her salt should be able to do that. It is Turkey’s behaviour on the international stage, on which Erdoğan has stamped his personal mark, which strikes a chord with the U.S. president. The Turkish model is winning over America!  

© Ahval English

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

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