Erdogan’s non-meeting with Trump

Erdogan’s non-meeting with Trump

A picture is worth a thousand words. However, in the case of photographs emerging from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and U.S. President Donald Trump’s May 16 meeting, less than one thousand words can be said. 

Much ink has been spilled on the Trump-Erdogan meeting within the past week. However, especially in the U.S. press, it is hard to see any of this ink without also seeing a tint of the blood of the protestors assaulted outside of the Turkish Embassy in Washington. While it is unclear what was revealed in the 23-minute meeting between the leaders, it is much easier to underline the aesthetics of the meeting rather than dwell on more concrete implications. 

For those pushing the Trump-Erdogan friendship, it was all in Trump’s handshake, they said. It was in Trump’s greeting of Erdogan at the door, they said. It was in their friendly rhetoric during the press conference, they said. 

For others, these aesthetics were devoid of meaning. The exchanges on both sides led to an increased rhetorical spat—whether it was calls from U.S. Senator John McCain to “throw out” the Turkish Ambassador or Turkey’s call to remove Brett McGurk as the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS. This culminated in the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee’s decision to condemn the violence outside the Turkish Embassy—a decision that the Turkish Foreign Ministry disputes is “one-sided.” As the White House has yet to comment on the issue, this news story has not faded within the past week and a half.

While nothing was done to vindicate Erdoğan’s reputation in the U.S. as an authoritarian figure, nothing was done to keep the 36th Annual Conference on U.S.-Turkish Relations from taking place at Trump’s DC hotel this week. The discussion at the press conference was business-as-usual for both sides. The same topics were drilled in.

That is, it was the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). It was the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG).  It was the Turkish cleric and U.S. resident Fethullah Gülen, and it was the imprisoned İzmir-based Pastor Andrew Brunson.

But from this, what did either side achieve? Seemingly, Turkey received a small concession on the U.S. decision to arm the YPG. Matching Trump’s call to stand with Turkey in its fight against the PKK, in his meeting with Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis offered an extension of hope for the Turkish government with a “plan to increase cooperation on Turkey’s counter-PKK efforts.”

The U.S., tied to institutional obligations and balance of powers, remained unmoved on Gülen—and Erdoğan barely mentioned him in his press conference speech maybe because of this. Much to the distaste of the U.S., Turkey still is yet to develop allegations against Brunson. 

Obviously, neither side is going to give up their fight against the Islamic State. But with the U.S.’s definitive plan to include the YPG in the battle for Raqqa, Turkey and the U.S. must work out another route.

It was perhaps most surprising that neither side mentioned the Reza Zarrab case, the Turkish-Iranian gold trader allegedly close to the Turkish government who was arrested in the U.S. last year on charges of evading U.S. sanctions on Iran—an issue also close to the Trump administration given the participation of former New York City mayor and avid Trump supporter Rudy Giuliani, the defense lawyer in the case. 

After a week of considering this meeting, its implications, and the future of U.S.-Turkish relations, it is hard to say that the Erdoğan-Trump meeting served as anything other than as a non-meeting or a photo-op—a sentiment that has been consistently repeated in many analyses of the meeting.  As Trump forges his way through the Middle East on his first foreign tour, it is perhaps best for Turkey to consider where it considers itself in this hierarchy of leaders—who seem to be changing Trump’s mind and leading a regional policy shift ahead of Erdoğan.

Megan Gisclon is the Managing Editor and a researcher at Istanbul Policy Center.