A crucial test for Erdoğan’s choices
Before departing for China on May 12, Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan’s messages were not focused on China but the United States.
That is where he is scheduled to fly to from China to meet U.S. President Donald Trump on May 16.
It has not been an easy meeting to arrange.
Following his election, Erdoğan was one of the first leaders to have a phone call with Trump. But later on, things have not evolved as Erdoğan desired. Trump was inviting leaders whom he spoke to frequently after taking his oath on Jan. 20, but it wasn’t until Feb. 8 that they spoke again after a public statement by Erdoğan that he wanted to have a word.
Erdoğan wanted to have a word with Trump on two main, but actually three issues:
- The U.S. should stop cooperating with the People’s Protection Units (YPG) against the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) in Syria, because they are terrorists as well as the Syrian branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Additionally, he said Turkey was ready to cooperate as a NATO member.
- The U.S. should take legal action against Fethullah Gülen, the Pennsylvania-based Islamist preacher who is accused of masterminding the foiled military coup of July 15, 2016, to topple Erdoğan.
- And the case of Reza Zarrab, who has both Iranian and Turkish citizenship and is currently under arrest in the U.S. accused of crimes like money laundering and breaching embargoes. Erdoğan has asked Zarrab to be given to Turkey since he is a citizen.
No improvement has been achieved in any of those issues so far.
On the contrary, Trump has approved a plan to provide more and heavier arms to the YPG as the Raqqa operation approaches, right before the White House made the official statement about the meet.
Erdoğan snubbed opposition calls to cancel the meeting with Trump but said the meeting would be of “the value of a full stop, not a comma.” He was implying a reset in relations.
That may not be the perception of Trump.
American diplomacy might calculate that the Turkish government might take radical measures, including the closure of the strategic air base of İncirlik. That means the – probably temporary – loss of the base is less important for the U.S. now than executing the Raqqa operation at once.
Erdoğan is going to have a three-party meeting with Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping in China on May 14. Will that give competitive messages to the U.S. about the side Turkey continues with? Will Trump be disturbed by the idea of Turkey leaving the West and joining, say, the Shanghai Cooperation Council? Not very likely.
Turkey’s economic, political and defense interests have been with the West for many years despite all ups and downs. Also on Syria, ISIL and the YPG, Russia thinks like the U.S. and China backs Russia.
So it is not a choice for Trump or Putin to decide, but Erdoğan as the only executive authority in Turkey after the April 16 referendum.
Separating Turkey from the West will inevitably have radical economic and political consequences, but Erdoğan must have forecast them with all his experience in politics.
After his return, he will have to make another choice, this time in the ranks of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) in the May 21 emergency congress where he is expected to be elected chairman again.
That would make him the only authority in the ruling party, as well as the dominant authority in the parliament and in the government.
Then there will be the NATO summit in Brussels on May 25 where Erdoğan is slated to meet with top European Union officials as well.
That means other key choices to make.
Erdoğan’s choices in the next two weeks will give strong indications about Turkey’s path in the near future.