Fresh from securing his grip on Turkey with a referendum to centralize power, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan will meet President Donald Trump at the White House on Tuesday on a mission to restore frayed ties.
Trump was one of the first world leaders to congratulate Erdogan on winning the April 16 vote to strengthen his office, despite concern in some other capitals that Turkey has taken a dangerous turn towards authoritarianism.
But Washington and Ankara are still bitterly at odds over US support for the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), a faction that the Pentagon sees as a vital ally against the Islamic State group in Syria but that Turkey brands a front for the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.
And Erdogan remains angry that the United States continues to host Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen, a former ally who chose exile in Pennsylvania and who has now been accused of masterminding last year’s bloody attempted coup in his homeland.
Both issues poisoned ties between Erdogan and former US president Barack Obama, but there now appears to be an opening for Trump to rebuild bridges and secure at least grudging Turkish agreement not to oppose the US-led drive by YPG-led fighters to oust the Islamic State from their Syrian stronghold of Raqa.
In return, Trump will have to give Erdogan assurances that Gulen will be closely monitored while the US courts examine a Turkish extradition request and that — once the Islamic State has been driven out of the Iraqi city of Mosul — Washington will endorse a Turkish offensive against PKK bases in Sinjar, northern Iraq.
“That’s the main ask,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish research program at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy and recent author of “The New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey.”
“He’s going to want US support for a Turkish operation against Sinjar. In this case, the stars are a little bit aligned in Erdogan’s favor,” he added.
“I think what we will tell the Turks is ‘Yes, we can do this, but let’s focus on Mosul first’.”
– ‘Pat on the back’ –
Erdogan and Trump are scheduled to give joint press statements after talks at the White House, a platform that will allow the Turkish leader to demonstrate to supporters at home and critics abroad that his referendum win has the support of the leader of his most powerful NATO ally.
Trump, meanwhile, may be distracted by the ongoing controversy over intelligence leaks and the alleged ties between his campaign and Russia, and not seek to put Erdogan on the spot over his government’s often strident anti-American rhetoric or his clampdown on opposition media and purge of alleged Gulenists in government jobs.
“To the extent that Erdogan looks like he’s being flattered, he’s going to love that … to confirm to the Turks that his referendum victory was free and fair, and he’s getting a pat on the back from the US president. That’s number one,” said Cagaptay.
“Look for any deals on Sinjar and the PKK, and for any deals on Gulen or any new wording on that, coming from behind closed doors.”
Turkish officials have spoken enthusiastically about Trump’s election as a chance to turn a new page, but hopes could have been dashed last week when the Pentagon confirmed that it has increased its support for the YPG by directly arming its fighters ahead of the battle to oust the Islamic State from its de facto capital in Syria.
Ankara regards the YPG as simply the Syrian arm of the “terrorist” PKK, which has waged a deadly insurgency inside Turkey since 1984, and Erdogan is worried the war against the IS group will leave his deadly enemy in charge of a US-armed statelet on his southern frontier.
But he is also concerned about the PKK’s growing presence in Sinjar, and would have the support of local Kurdish authorities if he were to launch a cross-border operation to destroy the group’s highland bases. Erdogan may be persuaded not to act as a spoiler in Syria if Trump gives him a green light in Iraq.