An anatomy of Erdoğan’s phone call crisis with Trump
The awareness on both sides of the trend that is pushing Turkey-U.S. relations toward a train crash is not enough to prevent the direction in which we are heading today. We are at the point where both sides have “zero trust” in each other. The Jan. 24 phone call between U.S. President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was supposed to soothe tensions triggered by Turkey’s “Operation Olive Branch” into Syria’s Afrin district but it has turned into a new crisis itself.
With Ankara threatening to extend its military campaign in Syria towards Manbij, currently controlled by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), there was never going to be much room for sweet talk between Trump and Erdoğan. But nobody really expected this level of mayhem over a phone call that had in fact been arranged to solve a crisis.
The key point in the White House readout after the call was Trump urging Turkey to “exercise caution” and to “avoid any actions that might risk conflict between Turkish and American forces.” That was one of the few points of the statement the Turks did not dispute shortly after the White House put out the readout. A warning to prevent a hot conflict between the soldiers of the two countries in Manbij, coming from Trump himself, showed that the U.S. considers Turkey’s Manbij threats to be beyond rhetorical.
The surprising part in the White House readout was Trump’s expression of “concern” about “destructive and false rhetoric” coming from Turkey, as well as about U.S. citizens and local employees detained under the prolonged State of Emergency. Although this exactly reflects the common feeling in Washington across the board, we are not really used to hearing about Trump himself targeting Erdoğan’s rhetoric.
Presidential sources in Ankara quickly reached out to members of the media to deny that Trump used such language. According to Ankara, Trump only mentioned that open criticism of the U.S. raised concerns in Washington. The Turkish side also insisted that there was no talk of the state of emergency in the phone call, or anything to do with Iran.
Firstly, it would not be too far-fetched to suggest that the bureaucracy mobilized to fill in the gaps where they felt Trump was not stern enough in conveying the talking points in front of him. Because nobody is going to publish the records of the call – as the leader of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has demanded - what counts in terms of public memory is the readout.
Secondly, although it is understandable that Turks would push for a precise account of the recent highest-level contact between Ankara and Washington when you carefully compare the White House readout with Ankara’s version there is not a huge gap in spirit. What is worse is because of Ankara’s eagerness to play this publicly Washington had to come out and firmly stand behind the readout in the strongest fashion possible. State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert took the message in the readout even further by saying Trump was “very clear and tough” with Erdoğan that the U.S. did not want to see escalation of tensions in Syria.
Blaming it on the chaotic nature of Trump’s White House or Trump’s lack of detailed interest in complicated matters such as Syria or the heightened lack of coordination during the Trump era should not deter us from coming to terms with the bigger picture here.
The security and military cooperation between Turkey and the U.S., which has served as the bastion of the alliance for the last 60 years, has reached an impasse. In Manbij, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), close affiliates of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), are waiting to pull the trigger of the American weapons in their possession against the Turkish army. State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert feels at ease to criticize Ankara in front of the cameras by saying Turkey has taken its eyes off the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria and was now going after the PKK.
Every time Turks question whether the U.S. stance on the YPG is compatible with the one a NATO ally should have, Americans reciprocate by questioning whether the purchase of S-400s from Russia is compatible with being a NATO ally. When Ankara argues: “But the YPG-PKK relationship is an existential threat to me,” Washington insists that Russia poses an existential threat to NATO.
In the meantime, the debate around Turkey’s NATO membership is gaining traction once again in Washington. But this time members of the “We lost Turkey, there is no need to wrestle for this relationship” camp are more crowded. The general mood at Capitol Hill says that Erdoğan’s Turkey is neither a rational actor nor a reliable ally and reflects the pressure point on the Trump administration.
However, the security apparatus of the U.S. is not eager to burn bridges with Turkey in the context of Syria with fears of greater instability in the region. The safe zone formula, which was voiced vaguely by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, is a manifestation of this desperate search to get out of the stalemate. Although Ankara declined to discuss that formula before Washington delivers confidence building steps starting from the collection of the anti-ISIL coalition’s weapons from the YPG, Americans still believe they can create an opening with the safe zone negotiations.
Nobody in Washington is really sure whether Ankara is bluffing about attacking the YPG in Manbij. That might be the strength of the Turkish position for the time being as long as this is backed by clever diplomacy in negotiations not by impulsive rhetoric or actions.