Oliver Wright
Aug 21 2018

The end of the affair: Turkey falls out of love with Trump

As Turkey’s pro-government media pulls out all the stops in its attempt to blacken and ridicule U.S. President Donald Trump it is easy to forget that, not so long ago, he was the darling of the Turkish press.

Before the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, the Turkish government had grown frustrated with the policies of Trump’s predecessor, Barak Obama. This frustration was particularly pronounced over U.S. backing of Kurdish militias in northern Syria in its campaign to defeat Islamic State.

Turkey took a dim view of such developments because the Kurdish groups the United States supported were connected to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which has been fighting the Turkish state for more than three decades. The prospect of what would essentially be a PKK statelet emerging on Turkey’s southern border was, unsurprisingly, viewed in Ankara as a security threat on a par with, or greater than, that posed by the Islamic State.

As the U.S. election approached in 2016, Turkey naturally viewed it through the lens of its national security interests. Trump, though largely an unknown quantity, appeared as if he might promote a foreign policy more closely aligned with Turkey’s interests than his rival, Hillary Clinton.

The Turkish government and its media allies therefore, and perhaps unwisely given they had so little to go on, came to view Trump as a more palatable prospect than Clinton. Even before the election took place, it seems that Turkey attempted to buy Trump’s influence and favour by hiring a lobbying firm run by Trump supporter General Michael Flynn who ― before his downfall ― served briefly as Trump’s National Security Advisor.

Turkish hopes soared after Trump prevailed in the election and a slew of articles in the Turkish media proclaimed Trump’s victory as the dawn of a new era in relations between the two countries.

That it has not turned out like that is now patently obvious, even to those most committed to the narrative.

The warning signs were always there. Trump did not, for example, cut support for the Kurdish militias in Syria that Turkey so loathed. But the positive narrative was one that Turkey’s pro-government media, always on the lookout for good news as storm clouds gathered, were loath to dispense with. Commentators preferred to interpret the warning signs as the product of rogue elements within the Trump administration, rather than as indications of Trump’s erratic mind-set. And Trump himself, threw them a few scraps to feed on, most recently when he fist-bumped Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at a NATO summit, a gesture the significance of which was inflated out of all proportion in the Turkish media.      

Now, what was heralded as a new dawn seems less like a false dawn than the onset of darkest night. Any illusions that remained about Trump’s attitude towards Turkey and what some had hoped was the special nature of his relationship with Erdoğan were shattered on August 10 when he tweeted to announce the doubling of tariffs on Turkish steel imports.

It was not just the content of the tweet that stung, alluding as it did to the poor state of relations between the two countries and the weaknesses of the Turkish lira, but the timing too. Knowingly or unknowingly Trump posted his tweet as the Turkish finance minister, who also happens to be Erdoğan’s son-in-law, was delivering a critical presentation that aimed to reverse the lira’s decline. The currency instead slumped yet again.

To Erdoğan and the Turkish media, never backward in attributing the most sinister of intentions to their protagonists ― and always minded to take things personally ― this was tantamount to a declaration of war.

Now, the same voices that once sang Trumps praises are reading from a different sheet. Erdoğan, who said early in 2017, "I believe we will reach a consensus with Mr Trump, particularly on regional issues," now talks of stabs in the back. His chorus in the Turkish media are far less restrained in their denunciations.

Still, Turkey has been here before, more than once, in its recent past. Back in 2013 Erdoğan and his former travelling companions in the Gülen movement endured an acrimonious divorce. Erdoğan said he had been stabbed in the back and the Gülen movement found itself the target of, amongst other things, vituperative attacks by the same Turkish press that had once adored it.   

More recently, in 2015, the Turkish air force shot down a Russian jet along the Syrian border, leading to a crisis that was resolved only when Turkey capitulated in the face of economic pressure imposed by Russia. Back then, Turkish media was swift to denounce Russian President Vladimir Putin, and indeed anything Russian, in terms not dissimilar to those they now level against Trump. To Erdoğan it was another stab in the back. This time though the differences were resolved and it is now hard to find a word against Putin in the Turkish press.

Here we are again in 2018. History might never repeat itself, but the rhyme scheme is sometimes too strong to miss. The many journalists working in the Turkish media are yet again eating their words. The Turkish public must wonder, as they pick up their newspapers, if what was white yesterday will be black today. And as for Erdoğan, his back must be riddled with stab wounds by now.

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