Erdoğan’s biggest problem in the meeting with Trump
On his way back from Kazakhstan on Sept. 10, Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan told reporters on board his plane that his meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump would be a good opportunity to cover all the issues between them. The two leaders are expected to meet on the premises of the United Nations General Assembly later this month, as they had agreed during a telephone conversation on Sept. 9. No date and place have been arranged yet.
There are a number of important problems between the two NATO allies, which have been escalating in the last three years, since the U.S. has decided to use the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), as their ground troops against the outlawed Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), or DAESH.
That is going to be one of the important issues on the agenda, as U.S.-backed YPG forces are about to take the ISIL-held city Raqqa and press forward to Deir al-Zor, despite Russia-backed Syrian army troops who are also heading for the city. Trump, like his predecessor Barack Obama, has already turned down offers from Erdoğan to drop the YPG as a partner and fight ISIL together. The difference is, Obama’s authority on the U.S. military, especially the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) in charge of the fight against ISIL, was greater than that of Trump’s.
Another issue, which has political and personal importance for Erdoğan, is the situation of Fethullah Gülen, the Islamist preacher living in a Pennsylvania farm house and indicted in Turkey for masterminding the July 15, 2016 foiled military coup. Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government want the U.S. administration to either extradite Gülen to Turkey for trials, or to take legal action in the U.S. in order to stop him from orchestrating his network in and outside of Turkey. Gülen’s network runs schools in more than 100 countries in the world along with foreign trade organizations. The answer Ankara gets from Washington has not changed since the coup attempt: It is up to the courts. Erdoğan gives the same answer to Trump when he asks for the release of American Reverend Andrew Craig Brunson, who lives in Turkey and is currently under arrest for being linked to Gülen’s illegal network.
Those are not the only problems. An American court recently issued arrest warrants against President Erdoğan’s bodyguards for beating up protesters during his May 2017 trip to Washington D.C. when he held a meeting with Trump. And before Erdoğan’s fury about that ruling was over, another court has issued arrest warrants against former Economy Minister Zafer Çağlayan and former Halkbank (a state bank) manager Süleyman Aslan, for their alleged connections with Reza Zarrab, a dual Turkish-Iranian citizen who is currently in an American prison and is being tried against violating sanctions on Iran. Erdoğan said those are actions against Turkey.
Underlining the ongoing military cooperation between the two countries, ranging from the anti-ISIL fight to anti-terror operations in Afghanistan and the global missile defense system, Erdoğan will probably ask Trump to do his best for him. Erdoğan will go to the U.S. with down payments already made and about to close the contract to purchase the Russian made S-400 air defense systems, since it is not easy for Turkey to get weapons from the U.S. In the Congress, Erdoğan and Turkey are favored targets. Erdoğan recalled that Turkey had to build its own drones, including armed drones, because the U.S. refused to sell them to Turkey for years.
The Gülenist network in the U.S. are playing an important role in building up the anti-Erdoğan, anti-Turkey sentiment through the links they cultivated for the last two decades in the civil society and political circles, ironically thanks to the help of Erdoğan’s governments up until a few years ago.
The negative Gülen effect in Washington D.C. is likely to be one of the biggest problems for Erdoğan in his meeting with Trump.
But that is likely to be the second biggest problem. The biggest problem, is the question mark regarding Trump’s capacity to deliver. It seems that the realities fall short of intentions, in a world where when you get the promise of a U.S. President, you can consider it done. And this is valid for the rest of the world, not just Turkey.