President Erdogan met with President Trump at the White House in Washington, DC on Tuesday, 16 May in his first meeting with a western head of state or government since the constitutional referendum exactly one month earlier. Both heads of state expressed their hope that the relationship between Turkey and the U.S. would be better than it has been in the recent past, with Trump noting that Erdogan was making his “first visit to Washington in years.” Both characterized the relationship between the two countries as outstanding and poised to get even better.
In analyzing the significance of this meeting, we must pay attention to what was not said as much to the little that was said in public. The facial expressions of the two leaders are also worth noting, but only in the most general terms. In sum, the meeting bodes well for relations between the two leaders, but there is unlikely to be much of substance to result from this meeting. That said, if a positive relationship between the two men that has been underway tentatively for several months can be maintained, it promises to affect both countries in significant ways.
Terrorism, Terrorism, Terrorism
Leading up to this meeting, General Hulusi Akar, Presidential Spokesman and Advisor Ibrahim Kalin, and Intelligence Director Hakan Fidan had met with U.S. counterparts, possibly to attempt to dissuade the U.S. from arming the YPG, see below, but more likely to devise a strategy for success when their respective presidents met in the face of issues on which Turkey and the U.S. do not agree, for example, the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, human rights abuses (in particular in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of Turkey during counter-terrorism operations), freedom of the press, to name a few. Thus, in the public remarks, the two presidents underlined, emphasized, reiterated, and highlighted their joint commitment to fight terrorism. The aforementioned areas of disagreement went unmentioned.
There was remarkably little said about Syria beyond remarks that indicate the U.S. recognizes the important role Turkey will play in restoring stability to Syria, once ISIS is eradicated. No mention was made of Turkey’s cooperation with Russia and Iran on de-escalation zones, again, avoiding public discussion of areas of likely disagreement. (The U.S. position on de-escalation or safe zones may shift, but that too awaits the defeat of ISIS.)
Phone Call as Prelude
One month ago, Erdogan narrowly won a referendum to greatly enhance his powers as an executive president. Reflecting concerns with allegations of vote fraud, most western leaders restrained themselves from congratulating Erdogan — not so Trump. By calling Erdogan to congratulate him on his victory, Trump offered Erdogan respect and approval at a time when most democratically governed nations gave him a cold shoulder. What looked then like another Trump mis-step now reveals itself to have been part of the process of building a personal relationship with the leader of a key ally in the struggle against ISIS. Recent press reports indicate the White House decided some time ago that it had to arm Kurdish fighters (YPG) of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to have an effective ground force against ISIS, even in the face of certain Turkish opposition to such a course of action. The phone call served to communicate that Trump respects Erdogan, realizes his importance, and would keep him informed of U.S. actions that affect Turkey and Turkish interests. This visit likewise serves to reassure Erdogan and Turkey that though the Trump administration might take actions difficult for Turkey to approve of, the U.S. will do all in its power to respect Turkey and its interests. Though Erdogan could not to obtain a reversal of plans to arm the YPG, he almost certainly received promises that U.S. personnel will do everything in their power to ensure the arms are used against ISIS, not Turkey or its personnel.
In public remarks, Trump made clear that the U.S. considers the PKK as much a terrorist threat as ISIS, and will cooperate fully with Turkey in countering the PKK threat. He did not speak about YPG’s affiliation with the PKK, glossing over what is a strong irritant in U.S.-Turkish relations. Erdogan, however, made it clear that discrimination between terrorist groups makes no sense, that the YPG and PKK are the same organization, and should be dealt with in the same manner. But he did not press the point nor deliver his comments in a belligerent or aggressive tone. Aware of the need to show that it values Turkey, it appears the U.S. will enhance its intelligence sharing with Turkey in the fight against the PKK.
In public remarks, Trump did not mention the extradition case of Fethullah Gulen; Erdogan did, but only obliquely by referring to FETO as a terrorist organization. Both men, though for different reasons, considered it wise not to speak the name. Likewise, neither man mentioned Reza Zarrab, under arrest in the U.S. for violation of financial sanctions, or American Pastor Andrew Brunson, under arrest in Turkey for alleged support of the July 15 coup attempt. We should infer from this not saying of names that both sides recognize the need to pursue privately the resolution of these cases in conformity with the relevant laws and treaties, and not to cause a public furor that would not serve the interests of either the U.S. or Turkey.
Worth the effort?
Erdogan got respect from the leader of the world’s most powerful democracy, and by extension, a recognition that Turkey cannot be ignored or dismissed in decision making that affects events in its region. He did not get a reversal of the YPG arms commitment, but he certainly knew that before he arrived based on information from his advisors. Most important, he was treated with respect and he likely got assurances that Turkey has a seat at the table when it comes time to shift from defeating ISIS to settling the Syrian conflict. He is not flying home with Fethulah Gulen in the cargo hold, but he made clear that he remains focused on the issue and likely received assurances that the U.S. Department of Justice will carefully examine the evidence presented. Finally, beyond laying the foundation for future interactions, Trump’s demeanor and public remarks revealed to Erdogan that as the United States is not going to publicly lambast Turkey for the purging of teachers and civil servants, jailing of journalists, or “collateral damage” inflicted on civilians in the southeast as the security forces pursue actions against alleged coup sympathizers or PKK militants. The corollary to America First in U.S. foreign policy appears to be “Criticize in private, praise in public.” One imagines President Erdogan will welcome this.