Unpredictable Trump: Not so unpredictable on Turkey

Unpredictable Trump: Not so unpredictable on Turkey

A few days ago we heard from one of the top diplomats of the United States that the “unpredictability” of President Donald Trump’s foreign policy has been serving her well in her negotiations with other countries. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, in a hearing before the Congress, implied that Trump’s doctrine of diplomatic chaos was a kind of planned strategy.

“I deal with 192 countries and the overwhelming feeling is that we are unpredictable. It has kept them on higher alert, not wanting to get on our bad side,” said Haley.

Haley’s defense of her administration’s unpredictability was rather an effort to counterbalance the domestic critics’ sense of the U.S. losing its traditional role of leadership on matters dear to the Western order. After all, Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, his zigzagging on the obsoleteness of NATO and his persistence to pursue a Muslim travel ban has exasperated the transatlantic alliance.

What made Haley’s testimony much more eyebrow-raising was her comment that the Trump administration does not telling her what to say or what not to say. Wow! What a luxury for a diplomat!

I will not go as far as to question what makes Haley, who is not a career diplomat, enjoy such a level of autonomy in her diplomatic dealings, while her boss Rex Tillerson has not even been able to appoint personnel at the State Department without the consent of the White House.

The question for me is whether or not Trump’s unpredictable foreign policy has had any unpredictable outcomes for Turkey in the last five months since he took office. It is no secret that initially the Turkish government invested high hopes in Trump, just because of his unpredictability. A very popular line from Ankara at the start of the year was that “nothing can be worse than another four years with a predictable Hillary Clinton.”

However, Trump very quickly proved that the river will not flow backward in terms of the number one priority on Turkey’s checklist: Syria. He authorized the Pentagon as the patron of the U.S.’s counter-ISIL strategy, which did not move an inch on fortifying and heavily arming the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG)-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to liberate Raqqa. Although the White House threatened to use force on the Bashar al-Assad regime once again to deter a new chemical attack, the Pentagon describes the ultimate U.S. aim in Syria as defeating ISIL and expresses content over the regime’s efforts to fight the same enemy.

Just like Trump resorting to the YPG as the reliable partner on the ground, there is no surprise in Washington’s intent to step up efforts for stronger cooperation in supporting Turkey’s fight with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). After all, not doing so would contradict U.S. laws, as the PKK is on Washington’s official terror list anyway and such cooperation is a small price to pay compared to the strategic importance of keeping the İncirlik air base open during the war against ISIL.

With regard to the other high priority for Ankara, the extradition of Fethullah Gülen and the eradication of the Gülenist network in the U.S., there has been nothing but talk so far by Trump officials. It is almost the first anniversary of the July 15, 2016 coup attempt and we have not even seen a single symbolic gesture on the Gülen file from the Trump administration.

The Reza Zarrab case remains the wild card in Turkey-U.S. relations. There are rumors that several backchannels were tested by the Turkish government to push Trump for the return of Zarrab, a Turkish businessman who is in jail in the U.S. for violating Iran sanctions. However, interfering with the judiciary in favor of Turkey could have immense domestic consequences for Trump at a time when he is already under scrutiny for violating state practices and violating the limits of his power. 

So it seems that a globally unpredictable Trump has not actually been so unpredictable on Turkey in his first five months in office. The only unpredictable thing between Washington and Ankara in this period was the brawl outside the Turkish Embassy back in May, which apparently has nothing to do with Trump. I am afraid Turkey has still not yet suffered the unpredictable consequences of this brawl, which resulted in arrest warrants being issued for a number of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s security guards.