Trump willing to take fresh look at Mideast
Incoming U.S. President Donald Trump will listen more to Middle East countries like Turkey than either the outgoing Obama administration or the person he defeated in the election, Hillary Clinton, according to the chair of the Turkey-US Business Council, Ekin Alptekin.
“Trump is looking at things more pragmatically and he is willing to listen to his strategic partners in the region,” he said.
You are known to favor Donald Trump as a better candidate for Turkish-US ties; tell us why.
I promoted him in the Turkish-American community because I believed that he would be the candidate who would be the most effective in deepening and strengthening bilateral ties.
The Turkish-American relationship is mostly based on political and military cooperation. In recent years, we feel the dynamic of the political dimension has gone down a little bit. We recently suffered some serious disagreements on what the right course of action is.
First and foremost, on Syria, we have been arguing for certain actions that [the Barack] Obama administration did not want to take, like the no-fly zone, for instance.
As a Turkish citizen, I feel that the Obama administration has not done enough to try and understand our position and not been sensitive enough to some of our concerns.
My concern with Hillary Clinton was that she might have continued the same policies.
But this is not enough to say that Trump will be better for Turkish-U.S. ties.
It is not just that we were in disagreement with some Obama policies like Syria or its inability to understand quickly enough the July 15 [coup attempt] and their lack of urgency in dealing with the Fetullahist Terrorist Organization (FETÖ) files.
On the Trump side, we saw a willingness to look at these things differently. Trump has commended the way the Turkish government has dealt with the coup attempt. We have spoken with his advisers and security team to understand what their vision is for the Middle East and Syria.
We felt that there was more willingness to listen and understand than we have seen from the Obama administration or than the one we were likely to see from a Clinton White House.
Trump’s priority is to annihilate the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and then have a rather isolationist policy in the Middle East. To want degree will that overlap with Turkey’s interests?
First of all, we have more than a feeling for what vision they have for this region. We know who these people are; we know what their backgrounds are. We have a good idea who will be considered for some critical positions and who will deal with.
He is definitely the more isolationist candidate. He is not as hawkish on foreign policy as Clinton is. Looking form the Turkish perspective, the foreign policy of Obama; leading from behind, has had disastrous consequences for this region.
Hillary would have done the opposite, she would have been much more hawkish; she would have been extremely proactive, but both are wrong.
What you need is a more balanced foreign policy, an administration that is willing to listen to its allies that have a better understanding on long-term strategic interests than short-term tactical interests.
If you translate it to some of our issues; angering 80 million Turks over a tactical interest in a small geographical area in Syria with 20,000 members of the PYD [Democratic Union Party] does not make sense to me, we know it is an [outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party] PKK affiliate; they know it as well.
When the annihilation of ISIL is a priority and when you see Syrian Kurds fighting ISIL, do you think Trump will find another alternative to implement his priority policy?
If you compare the Turkish military force’s ability with the PYD, they are absolutely no match. The U.S. has a partner who is willing and able to do and has been able to do whatever is needed. We looked for an agreement on a persistent strategy for the aftermath but we never got a satisfactory answer.
I believe that with a Trump administration, it would be understood that 20,000 PYD forces are no match for the Turkish Armed Forces and with the Euphrates Shield Operation, we have proven we are capable to do what is needed in that region.
So you are expecting more cooperation on the ground between Turkey and the U.S.?
Without U.S. boots on the ground. As for us, we are already there.
But if one of Turkey’s concerns is the aftermath, then one would think that the Trump administration will tend to increase cooperation with Russia which, therefore, bring about the result of continuing with Bashar al-Assad, which might not be to the liking of Turkey.
It won’t be to the liking of the U.S. side either, since it has been consistent U.S. policy objective to have a Syria without al-Assad. But there are realities on the ground. When you look at the U.S., Russia, Turkey triangle with the current and upcoming leadership, I see a more fruitful and more productive prospect than Clinton, with Putin and Erdoğan sitting together.
With Trump, we see certain similarities in style and vision. People that are active in the background like each other and support each other.
By the way, the Russian-U.S. partnership and the Russian-Turkish partnership will be at best transactional.
I don’t believe in true friendship in global politics, but there is no shared future vision with Russia; the U.S. and Turkey are on one side, and Russia is on the other.
But problems in the neighborhood create a necessity to cooperate together.
The new administration has indicated through various statements and articles that it values this strategic relationship and will discuss a shared vision for the region. I think that with this strategic relationship and enjoying a transactional productive relationship with Russia will bring better results on the ground in Syria.
So do you argue that Trump’s isolationism might not be necessarily bad for Turkey?
U.S. intervention in this region did not have fantastic results in this region. Trump is looking at things more pragmatically and he is willing to listen to his strategic partners in the region.
I don’t think Trump will pull back from the Middle East; he will look at the facts and, in coordination with partners on the ground, will do whatever is necessary.
Trump administration won’t undertake unilateral military intervention on a large scale; they will be engaged militarily as well, especially until the ISIL threat is neutralized, but I don’t think they will continue to give heavy weapons to the PYD, for instance.
What are the similarities in your view between Trump and Erdoğan? Why would that make communication between the two easier?
The fact that he is not Clinton in itself will create a better dynamic. If you are meeting someone for the first time with a new capacity but you already know that to be person with whom you had many disagreements, the first meeting with that person in her new capacity will not enjoy any kind of dynamism. The first phone call between Erdoğan and Trump was already very positive. The fact that it took place and the speed with which it took place tells us something.
Erdoğan and Trump defeated the system; they defeated the status quo. They are self-made men.
The similarities which might be an asset can also be a liability when things go wrong. They are both temperamental.
I think they are smart enough and the level of their diplomatic aptitude is high enough.
They are both temperamental leaders, and that entails a risk, but I rather prefer two leaders having big arguments in a genuine way explaining their differences and to find a common ground rather than have people smile at you only for you to not get anywhere.
How about Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric; will that not be a problem?
In the Trump campaign, the biggest mistake has been the alienation of Muslims because of mistaken rhetoric. He apologized for the statement he made that he would not allow Muslims to enter the U.S. It has been exaggerated. Trump is not anti-Muslim, but anti-radical Islam. I don’t think he is an expert on Islam and one of the people he will consult in this regard and learn to trust will be Erdoğan.
The president-elect is willing to listen and learn, and he will learn a lot about Islam from the friendship he will enjoy with President Erdoğan.
What will the Trump administration’s approach be to the extradition of Gülen?
They will look at it more independently. The Obama administration was prejudiced. The very heavy lobbying power of these Gülenists in the U.S. has clouded their judgment. The way they interpret the extradition treaty is not in line with how anyone else would read it. There are enough legal grounds to detain Gülen.
Who is Ekim Alptekin?
Ekim Alptekin is the chairman of the Turkey-U.S. Business Council, and the honorary consul to Albania.
He is a member of the European Council of Foreign Relations (ECFR) and the Turkish Industry and Business Association (TÜSİAD.)
He is a major shareholder of Eclipse Aerospace, an Albuquerque-based aircraft manufacturer. Alptekin is also commercially active in the real estate, defense and entertainment industries through his companies EA Property Development and Construction Investment, ATH Defense and Security Solutions and One Colony Organisation A.Ş.
In 2001, Alptekin graduated from the University of Utrecht with a degree in law and economics. He worked for various international institutions, notably the United States House of Representatives in Washington, Dutch Parliament in The Hague and Interpol Counter-Terrorism Fusion Centre in Lyon. Alptekin served as the president of TABA/AmCham in 2012- 2014 and was awarded the Commercial Leadership Award by the American-Turkish Council in 2011.