Edward G. Stafford
Jun 27 2019

Don’t expect much from Erdoğan-Trump meeting

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and U.S. President Donald Trump will meet during the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan this week. Unless one or both dramatically shifts from their publicly stated positions on the contentious issues between Turkey and the United States, little improvement in the tense relations between the two NATO partners should be expected.

Erdoğan arrived in Osaka on the heels of a stinging defeat in the re-running of an election for Istanbul’s mayor. That said, on the international stage, his role has not been diminished by the defeat.

Trump and his advisors will avoid rubbing Erdoğan’s nose in his loss, though many will privately savour the end of his aura of electoral invincibility. Their calculations on dealing with him will focus on the continuing reality of his control of the levers of Turkish national power and ongoing strong support in parliament and among the Turkish people.

Trump and his team will be wary of adopting a confrontational approach that would give Erdoğan a pretext to attack the West and its policies for the growing economic problems in Turkey as he seeks to shift blame for his loss. The mismanagement of the economy underlies opposition politician Ekrem Imamoglu’s electoral victory, not the policies of foreign governments.

Despite efforts to foster harmony in Osaka, the decidedly difficult disagreements between Erdoğan and his American counterparts, and the two countries they lead, cannot be ignored.

The presence of U.S. forces in Syria has prevented the Turkish Armed Forces from dealing as they wished with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Syria’s north.

The Kurdish-dominated groups have ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, an outlawed organisation that has fought Turkish security forces for decades and is on Ankara and Washington’s terror lists. But unlike Ankara, Washington does not extend that designation to the Kurdish groups in northern Syria, where U.S. troops have fought alongside them against the Islamic State.

Erdoğan may see this situation, incorrectly, as having contributed to the loss of his candidate Binali Yıldırım when struggling to blame others for his failure. And though their withdrawal from the region bordering Turkey is planned, even a small number of the Kurdish fighters irks Erdoğan and the Turkish military.

For Turkey to control a safe zone in northern Syria in the face of Syrian and Russian resistance would require robust American support as a counterweight to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s backing for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This support has not been forthcoming, and remains highly unlikely, contrary to positive comments from Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavuşoğlu.

It would require an about face on several issues for Trump to back Turkey strongly in its northern Syria adventure, and Erdoğan looks unwilling to reverse course.

On Iran, the U.S. may have refrained, for the time being, on the use of direct military action against Iran, but the intense sanctions that affect third countries, including Turkey, look unrelenting. Given Turkey’s clear need for access to Western international finance to get out of its economic malaise, Trump is unlikely to let Erdoğan, and some of his closest supporters and advisors, off the hook regarding Iranian sanctions.

Then there is the issue of Eastern Mediterranean oil and natural gas exploration. Cyprus, a European Union member, will continue its efforts to discover exploitable hydrocarbon reserves in its territorial waters and Turkey can do little about it.

Russia would likely prefer that Eastern Mediterranean reserves do not come to the market and depress the price of oil and natural gas, but that does not translate into supporting Turkish action against exploration in waters internationally recognized as Cypriot. At Osaka, several interlocutors may take the opportunity to tell Turkey not to interfere with exploration efforts, though the United States will most likely let the EU take the lead on that issue, for now.

Most importantly, recent Pentagon and Congressional comments indicate that if Turkey goes ahead with the purchase of Russian S-400 missile defence systems, it will be shut out of the F-35 fighter jet programme, with profoundly painful economic results for Turkey’s defence and aeronautics industry.

Perhaps Erdoğan believes he can cut a deal with Trump to relieve the CAATSA sanctions almost certain to follow the acquisition of the S-400s. If he thinks so, he is miscalculating.

Though neither Trump nor his campaign were found to have colluded or cooperated with Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election, there is no mood in Congress among either Democrats or Republicans to accommodate foreign governments working closely with Russia.

That Turkey is a NATO member apparently taking its allies for granted only exacerbates the ill feelings towards its cozy relations with Russia. Unlike Erdoğan’s Turkish parliament, the U.S. legislature does not take instructions from the White House.

Trump clearly admires those he sees as strong leaders. Putin, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, China’s Xi Jinping, Erdoğan and others have enjoyed the approval of Trump, even when the United States and international media pointed out that these leaders are not friends of Washington.

Yet, this admiration has not resulted in political policies that the others would like to see. U.S. support for Ukraine has intensified, sanctions remain on North Korea, tariffs on China, and Trump has shown no reluctance to be tough with Turkey.

So, how likely is it that Trump wants to help Erdoğan? Trump divides others into categories; labeling them as losers and winners, or with harsher titles. Now Erdoğan is not as strong as before, he is no longer a winner, he lost Istanbul.

Of course, Trump lost his hometown, New York, but in his way of thinking, Erdoğan is a loser because when he called for a “do over”, he lost, and lost bigger.

Trump, though from New York, is rightly considered a Florida resident, not unlike Erdoğan making Istanbul his home though his family come from elsewhere. This does not mean Trump is supporting the opposition in Turkey, it is just his way of thinking and categorising others.

In sum, Trump has little or no incentive to accommodate Erdoğan unless the Turkish president backs away from the S-400 deal, cooperates on sanctions against Iran, and continues the reduced rhetoric about U.S. engagement in Syria.

Finally, as welcome as the release from house arrest last week of U.S. Istanbul consular employee Nazi Mete Cantürk is, it will have no impact on how Trump deals with Erdoğan. Don’t expect much improvement in U.S.-Turkish relations when Trump and Erdoğan meet in the Land of the Rising Sun.

© Ahval English

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