Has Trump lent a carte blanche to Erdoğan?

Has Trump lent a carte blanche to Erdoğan?

U.S. President Donald Trump’s enthusiasm to call Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to congratulate him over his referendum victory on day one raised quite many eyebrows in Washington. The usual suspects of the political scene in the U.S. capital immediately started voicing concern that Trump’s call gave the stamp of U.S. approval of the referendum result on a silver plate to Erdoğan. 

It is not surprising that the American media jumped on board, bombarding the White House press office and fishing for confirmation that Trump just gave carte blanche to Erdoğan after the latter secured sweeping powers for himself with a narrowly won referendum, (the result of which is rejected by Turkey’s main opposition party over claims of manipulations and irregularities). 

The White House has denied that the phone call from Trump to Erdoğan was planned before confirmation of the referendum result. During a gaggle with journalist aboard “Air Force One” en route to Wisconsin on April 18, White House Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders rejected claims that Trump was not concerned about the future of democracy in Turkey as a result of April 16 vote. Furthermore, Sanders made a strong reference to the forthcoming report of the OSCE delegation, which she praised as “having the gold standard” in election monitoring and assessment. 

However, the gist of the matter was never really about Turkey’s democratic health for Trump. Sanders confirmed this by stating that “the bigger point and priority of the phone call was to talk about Syria.” We already knew from the public statements by both sides that Erdoğan and Trump agreed on holding Bashar al-Assad accountable for using chemical weapons. This gave President Erdoğan an opportunity to raise the bid on al-Assad for being “the source of all evil in Syria.”

The phone call he got from Trump therefore actually meant two winning points for Erdoğan. The first was getting the U.S. president on board for his long-awaited goal of executive presidency, despite other Western leaders’ reluctance to give him that kind of legitimacy. The second was to take pride in the anti-Assad campaign that he has long waged. The third winning point followed the next day. Turkish sources say that in a separate phone call Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson agreed on a visit by Erdoğan to Washington, possibly toward the end of May. 

The Turkish side, which almost celebrated the election of Donald Trump with fireworks, was becoming frantic about being put on the waiting list for a presidential visit when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Jordanian King Abdullah, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, and Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had already made their way to Trump’s White House. It seems that Erdoğan needs that photo opportunity with the U.S. president more than ever, at a time when Turkey’s relations with Europe are going downhill at full speed. 

The question is: Why would a transactional president like Trump give all the winning points to his counterpart, especially when that counterpart is a leader from the world’s painful blister, the Middle East? The answer lies in the Trump administration’s plans in Syria. Trump, aware of Turkey’s discontent with top U.S. military commanders’ strategy to stick to the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) as the top partner on the ground, possibly wants to secure Turkey’s consent for their plans to liberate Raqqa from ISIL without drastically changing the Pentagon’s core proposals. 

“With President Obama we had a mutual agreement about the PKK but Obama deceived us. I don’t believe the Trump administration will do the same,” Erdoğan told Al Jazeera in an interview yesterday. It remains to be seen how long this optimism will last, since the PKK and the YPG will continue to mean different things for Washington at least until the negotiating table on the future of Syria is set up. In the short term, meanwhile, an Ankara facing domestic hardships might be content with the U.S.’s deferral of the Raqqa operation until Erdoğan makes his way to the White House.