After years of strained bilateral relations under the Obama administration, the government of Turkey had breathed a sigh of relief when Donald Trump was elected US president in November.
The Erdogan regime had hoped that Washington would finally be more sympathetic to Turkish views – until this week, that is. The Pentagon’s announcement that Trump had approved the transfer of weapons to Kurdish forces in Syria has sparked anger in Ankara, to put it mildly.
Turkey considers the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as a terrorist group, closely linked to the PKK in Turkey.
From a Turkish perspective, Trump’s talks with Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the White next Tuesday are suddenly going to morph into a crisis meeting of the first order.
“You see your NATO allies cooperating with such groups. This is unacceptable“, Erdogan told reporters. “I hope very much that this mistake will be reversed immediately.”
Prime Minister Binali Yildirim was even blunter: he could not imagine the US choosing between Turkey’s strategic partnership and a “terrorist organization”.
The Trump administration, though, sees the arming of the Kurdish elements of the SDF as necessary to ensure “a clear victory” against ISIL in Raqqa, the group’s self-declared capital in Syria.
Apparently surprised by the harsh Turkish reactions, Washington tried to calm things down. US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said he was confident the Trump administration would be able to resolve tensions with Turkey over the issue.
“We’ll work out any of the concerns”, Mattis told reporters during a visit to Lithuania. “We will work very closely with Turkey in support of their security on their southern border. It’s Europe’s southern border, and we’ll stay closely connected.”
Despite these assurances, Trump’s arming of Ankara’s declared enemies will likely cast a shadow over Tuesday’s US-Turkish summit and risk a strain of Trump’s friendship with Erdogan that dates back to at least last summer.
In an interview shortly after the 2016 military coup attempt, Trump praised Erdogan for putting the coup down and dismissed worries about his repression.
“I think right now when it comes to civil liberties, our country has a lot of problems, and I think it’s very hard for us to get involved in other countries when we don’t know what we are doing and we can’t see straight in our own country,” Trump said according to The Atlantic.
More recently, Trump has praised the Turkish leader, congratulating him on his controversial April victory in a Turkish election referendum marred by claims of voting irregularities.
That triumph bestowed Erdogan with sweeping new executive powers, alarming those who fear he’s leading Turkey toward a dictatorship.
There’s an obvious reason for Trump to be cozying up to Erdogan now, because Turkey is central to US strategy in fighting ISIL and, potentially, would be a key player in any expanded fight against the Syrian government.
When the Trump administration began exploring strikes against Bashar al-Assad, Erdogan quickly said he would approve the use of Incirlik Air Base in Turkey as a departure point.
“Prioritizing near-term security cooperation over the democratic and human rights of one partner is commonplace in American foreign policy, and Trump’s action here is an exaggerated example that proves the rule,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former Obama State Department official.
Yet, Trump has his very own style that even foreign leaders have yet to learn and understand. “This is Donald Trump! He is a deeply short-term, deeply transactional thinker when it comes to international relationships,” Wittes said.