The US-Turkey relationship is complicated, though both countries are members of NATO. Beyond the tension between Turkey and Israel, which complicates matters for Washington, Turkey’s ongoing campaign against any hint of Kurdish self-determination has repeatedly raised issues for the US over the years.
Turkey itself walks a fine line these days. Like the entire region, it is concerned about the ongoing campaign of the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) to establish a permanent presence in Iraq and Syria. But for Erdogan’s ruling party, that threat remains secondary to preventing any progress toward an independent Kurdistan.
Recent events add a large dose of drama to the upcoming Trump-Erdogan discussions. Trump’s increasing domestic problems in the wake of his firing of FBI Director James Comey make it more likely that he will want to make a splash in foreign policy of some kind to generate some positive attention. He has surely not forgotten the positive press his strike on a Syrian airbase received across the political spectrum—even though the strike itself had little effect on the Syrian government’s abilities and was taken outside of any larger US strategy.
Trump also decided to arm a Kurdish militia, the YPG, that Turkey sees as a terrorist group affiliated with the major Kurdish separatist party, the PKK. The US classifies the PKK as a terrorist group as well, but not the YPG, a militia that the US has worked with for some time. Though the Obama administration never directly armed the YPG, US arms supplied to allied Arab militias found their way into YPG hands, eliciting little fuss from Washington.
The step of directly arming the YPG was a step too far for Erdogan. He called on the United States to reverse this decision and said that the “fight against terrorism should not be led with another terror organization” and that “we want to know that our allies will side with us and not with terror organizations.” Turkey’s Defense Minister, Fikri Isik, went so far as to label this disagreement a “crisis” between the two countries.
It’s tempting to think that Trump was indulging in a typically impulsive decision. But the president actually approved a proposal from the Pentagon, under the aegis of Secretary of Defense James Mattis, one of the more sober and reliable members of Trump’s senior aides.
Mattis is well aware of the implications of arming the YPG for Turkey. In his capacity as secretary of defense, however, he is charged with finding the most effective ways to fight IS. Although Mattis is certainly not ignorant of the political implications of such decisions, his job description requires that he prioritize operational concerns. It’s supposed to be the president who tempers such decisions with his own judgment and consultations with other senior advisors.
Perhaps a more thoughtful person in the White House with a more active secretary of state might have come to the same decision Trump did. Instead, the current administration made a decision, with apparently minimal consideration, that will likely have only moderate effects on the ground—after all, the US could have simply increased the clandestine flow of arms to the YPG—but sits very poorly with an ally.
Erdogan is sure to bring up this matter in Washington, and he is a man that Trump seems to respect. At the same time, Erdogan is hardly dealing from a position of strength. With Russia backing the Assad regime, which Turkey opposes, he can hardly go too far in threatening the United States. He could, conceivably, retract permission for the US to use Turkish territory to launch attacks on IS forces. But if the US decided to call that bluff, Erdogan would not have many viable options.
Erdogan seems likely to counter the US decision by launching attacks against Kurdish positions in Iraq, something the US does not want him to do. After all, such attacks would complicate matters with the Iraqi government, and the targets include Kurdish allies of the United States. The Turkish government undertook similar actions last month, and Erdogan may decide to expand these activities. Although the United States did not respond beyond disapproving rhetoric, it is fair to wonder whether Turkey’s attack affected the Pentagon’s thinking about arming the YPG.
Another issue Erdogan may pursue with Trump is the extradition of Fethullah Gulen. Gulen is a cleric and one-time ally of Erdogan who now stands accused of being behind much of the domestic opposition to the Turkish president’s rule, including the attempted coup last year. Gulen lives in Pennsylvania and Erdogan has been demanding his extradition for some time, but more forcefully after the failed coup.
Erdogan has hoped that Trump would look more favorably on the extradition request than Barack Obama did. But Trump has not yet indicated how he views the situation with Gulen.
Extraditing Gulen might just be the sort of thing Trump, given his attitude toward political opponents from the US media to Hillary Clinton to James Comey, would support. But Gulen has a liberal following in Turkey and elsewhere, and he may just be a convenient scapegoat for Erdogan. Erdogan has made many accusations but without much public evidence to support them. Extraditing Gulen would be widely seen as a grave betrayal of due process. But it is not clear if Trump understands that.
The Trump administration’s silence in the face of Erdogan’s recent harsh criticism of Israel suggests that the two leaders have some desire to achieve positive outcomes at the upcoming meeting. Erdogan has expressed hope for a “new beginning” in relations with Washington, a clear reference to his dissatisfaction with Obama’s policies. But this will be a complicated undertaking. And complicated is not something Trump does well.