Deciphering the Donald: A quick guide for Turkey

Deciphering the Donald: A quick guide for Turkey

Megan Gisclon*
Following U.S. President Donald Trump’s Jan. 27 executive order, also known as the “Muslim ban,” America’s eyes turned toward the Islamic world. However, through all this talk of Muslims, Islam, and Islamophobia, one of America’s most important Muslim-majority allies — Turkey — was left out of the conversation by both the American people and President Trump. 

While there are many “details” of last week’s phone call between Presidents Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan coming from Ankara, the absence of reports from Washington indicates a strain in perceptions between the two allies: Turkey’s positive reading of Trump’s call shows Ankara’s eagerness to patch up U.S.-Turkish relations. Signs from the Trump administration seem to be a mixed bag.

Thus, in order to help guide the way for Turkey, here is a Trump quick guide on three issues that the Turkish government considers problematic for U.S.-Turkish relations.

On the PYD/YPG… 

One glaring point missing from U.S. commentary has been Trump’s strategy on arming the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)-affiliated People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). While sources from both the Turkish and the U.S. side maintain that Erdoğan mentioned the PYD/YPG in the official phone call, sources state that Trump was “noncommittal” on the issue of whether to continue arming the group. Given Trump’s pledge to completely eradicate ISIL, having issued an executive order asking the Pentagon to step up operations over the next 30 days, the administration will most likely cater to the two most effective troops on the ground in northern Syria — Turkey and the Free Syrian Army or the Syrian Democratic Forces — until it determines which will more effectively do the United States’ biding. As a practical man, Trump will look for the quickest and easiest way to win America’s battle over “radical Islamic terrorism” as Trump has so labeled it, much to Erdoğan’s dismay. 

On safe zones in northern Syria… 

Trump has pledged that he will “absolutely do safe zones” in northern Syria. Given that Trump has thus far lived up to his word, we can believe that he will execute this plan. The best way to look at this issue is to see the world as Trump does, in categories of black and white. For Trump, the Gulf States are the money to finance America’s anti-ISIL efforts; Turks are the soldiers to fight against ISIL on the ground in Syria. As a new diplomat, Trump has only seen part of the delicacy of this issue for Turkey.

On Gülen’s extradition… 

This is perhaps one of the toughest issues to read given that the U.S. president does not have the power to extradite Fethullan Gülen, accused by Turkey of being behind the July 15 coup attempt.  Since November 8, we have known that Trump’s National Security Advisor, General Flynn, is a fan of ridding the United States of another radical imam and coming to the aid of its NATO ally. Now, after Trump’s “Muslim ban” and subsequent battle between the executive and America’s “so-called judges,” the president has begun to politicize America’s independent judiciary. Thus, U.S. judicial affairs may become increasingly political, too, which could benefit or backfire for Gülen depending on how this institutional power struggle plays out. 

Reading the situation from this perspective, the most pressing issues between the U.S. and Turkey will likely not be prioritized in Trump’s first 100 days, traditionally the U.S. president’s most apt period for change.
It is worth noting that Turks around Istanbul may have a constant view of Trump Towers across the Bosporus. But in Trump’s America there are no such reminders of Turkey on the skyline.

* Megan Gisclon is the Managing Editor at Istanbul Policy Center.