Erdoğan wants to trust Trump, but…
The telephone conversation between Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan and U.S. President Donald Trump on Nov. 24 was revealing regarding the political psychology of the two leaders, which is likely to influence the near future of problematic relations between Ankara and Washington.
The first message about the conversation was given by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, paraphrasing Trump as saying that the U.S. president would “put that nonsense to an end.” The “nonsense” he was referring to was the U.S.’s delivery of weapons to the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which has been acting as the ground troops of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), despite persistent objections from the U.S.’s NATO ally Turkey.
The reason for Ankara’s objections is not the fight against ISIL - as Turkey is an active member of the anti-ISIL coalition - but the fact that the YPG is the Syrian extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting against Turkey for more than three decades and which is designated as a terrorist group (including by the U.S.).
The readout statement by the White House did not give any specific names of organizations, but it did not deny what Çavuşoğlu said. Trump’s message was consistent with his earlier tweet, in which he complained about the “$6 trillion” mistake he had “inherited,” meaning the Syria policy of his predecessor Barack Obama. It was also in line with his earlier signals that collaboration with the YPG would come to an end with the defeat of ISIL.
Ankara was eager to get its message about the YPG’s weapons heard. Though it is still not clear how the Trump administration will deliver its promises about collecting back all the weaponry given to the YPG (after Erdoğan raised concerns that it could be used against Turkish targets) once the collaboration is over, Erdoğan wants to believe what Trump says.
Actually, the Turkish president wants to trust Trump and feels closer to the current U.S. president than he did to Obama. But there are a number of factors limiting the level of trust.
The presence in the U.S. of Fethullah Gülen, the Islamist preacher accused of masterminding Turkey’s 2016 coup attempt, is actually not among the factors behind Erdoğan’s reluctance to have more trust in Trump. At the end of the day, that is a problem that can be solved. Similarly, the case of Reza Zarrab is also an issue that can be solved, even if it has the potential to create serious problems in Turkey’s domestic political and economic situation.
Rather, Erdoğan is not sure whether Trump is capable of delivering his promises due to the troubled domestic political situation in Washington. For example, Trump is against Turkey’s plan to procure Russian-made S-400 air defense systems, but Erdoğan is not sure whether Trump will be able to overcome Congress’ objections if he tries to sell Patriot systems to Turkey.
Trump has not yet been in office for a year, but a number of his close aides have either been fired by him or have had to leave their positions under FBI investigations. Trump has not been able to complete his foreign policy team amid many problems in the State Department, with the Pentagon and the CIA seemingly filling the current U.S. diplomacy gap.
Those are some of the reasons preventing Erdoğan from having full trust in U.S. President Trump, despite his enthusiasm when Trump first came to office. And the Turkish president may not be the only leader who thinks this way.