White House vs the Russia House

White House vs the Russia House

By the time you read this article, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s meeting with President Donald Trump will be over. I wish I could be a fly on the wall to predict the discussions inside the White House, but my instinct tells me that whatever is spoken inside will be dictated by a force outside Washington - the Kremlin.

The Turkish media and President Erdoğan’s team have been raising the level of expectations for this meeting since Trump’s inauguration. But that is hardly new. For the group of advisors around Erdoğan, the world practically revolves around him and the U.S. president when they meet. This was also the case in the Obama years, and we have no reason to believe it has changed. 

But the pendulum swings both ways. In contrast with Erdoğan’s widespread media comfort, Trump is not enjoying much “yes man” rhetoric in Washington at the moment. His meetings and disclosures of classified information to a Russian delegation last week are the latest signs of trouble. Trump is not getting any help from his institutions, and the U.S. is showing the world and Erdoğan’s camp that there is still something called the separation of powers.

Hürriyet Daily News editor-in-chief Murat Yetkin noted on private broadcaster CNN Türk on May 15 that U.S.-Turkey relations are much more layered and complicated than the recent PYD/YPG crisis. So why is the pro-Erdoğan media dropping hints that Turkey could cut its ties with the U.S. in an instant? Turkey may shut down the İncirlik air base to the U.S. but that is OK with the Pentagon. For Russia, meanwhile, such a move would be more than OK. 

Take a look at the great spymaster Vladimir Putin’s statement about the Kurds in Syria. “As the Kurdish factor is a real factor in the situation in Syria and Kurdish armed formations are taking part in combat operations against ISIL and are among the most combat efficient units, we consider it right to maintain working contacts with them, if only for avoiding possible collisions and situations that could create threats to our servicemen,” the Russian leader said in Beijing. 

I am sure the Pentagon’s critical men in uniform and President Trump would not hesitate to echo Putin’s words to Erdoğan. The only difference between Putin and Trump is the former’s decision not to supply arms to the YPG in Syria. But then again, Russia does not have to do that anyway.

So why is President Erdoğan’s visit to Washington being packaged as if it is the most critical meeting of his career? Let’s admit it, this is Erdoğan’s post-referendum tour. The presidential palace’s staff and army of advisors, including Chief of General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar and National Intelligence Organization (MİT) Chief Hakan Fidan, are all aware of the fact that the U.S. military will not change its position regarding the Kurds in Syria. Trump may comfort Erdoğan with a couple of gestures and try to put his worries to rest. But both leaders are seeking international alliances and legitimacy these days. That is why right after Erdoğan, Trump is going on a tour of Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Vatican and Brussels, (pay attention to the order of the first three).

Russia and the U.S. could help Turkey get better relations with Syria’s Kurds. That was the original plan before Turkey shot down a Russian aircraft in November 2015. A first meeting is only a first meeting, but Turkey’s approach toward Syria and the Syrian Kurds will likely be determined in the Kremlin rather than in Washington anyway.