Trump and Erdoğan: Do they have a future together?
Under other circumstances, the Nov. 24 phone conversation between Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan and U.S. President Donald Trump could have been considered a necessary and routine call between two NATO allies. Erdoğan had just got back from the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, where he had an important meeting on the future of Syria with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Nov. 22. It was therefore normal for Erdoğan to share information with the U.S. after that meeting, despite the fact that Trump and Putin were the two leaders who jointly announced on Nov. 11 that the only path forward for a new Syria was a political one.
But the echoes of the Nov. 24 phone call were mixed and complicated. The photo that was served to the press by the Turkish President’s Office showed tension in the faces of Erdoğan, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, National Intelligence Organization (MİT) chief Hakan Fidan and Presidential Spokesman İbrahim Kalın. Tension was also in the faces of Erdoğan’s cabinet chief Hasan Doğan and transcriber Hamdi Kılıç, who was taking notes in the room during the Trump call.
An interesting detail in the photo was also captured by the Turkish press: Besides the Turkish flag was hung the starboard of the 57th Regiment, which fiercely resisted the embankment of the British-ruled Anzac armies in the Gallipoli campaign of 1915 and stopped their advance by losing two-thirds of their troops. (Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, was one of the commanders of the regiment who told the soldiers: “I don’t order you to fight, I order you to die.”)
These symbols reflected the mood in the presidential compound in Ankara, similar to the mood – as it was interpreted at the time - when former U.S. President Barack Obama was photographed holding a baseball bat while supposedly speaking to Erdoğan in 2012, before relations started to go sour.
The Turkish press the next day was dominated by the words of Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu, who said Trump told Erdoğan that there would be no further delivery of weapons to the People’s Protection Units (YPG), who have acted as ground troops for the U.S. in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Turkey has long objected to this arming as the YPG is the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has for decades been fighting against Turkey and which is also considered a terrorist group by Washington.
The White House’s readout statement after the Trump-Erdoğan call did not specifically mention the names of the groups, but it also did not contradict what Çavuşoğlu said. However, there was also a reference to arms procurement projects, which brought to minds the controversial issue of the Russian-made S-400 air defense systems, which Erdoğan has said Ankara is set to buy because its allies (read the U.S.) refuse to sell their own Patriot air defense systems. It seems difficult for Trump to promise to sell Patriots to Turkey in the current political situation - both because of Turkey’s deteriorated image in Congress and because of U.S. domestic politics - but it may signal deploying more NATO Patriots to Turkish soil until Ankara settles for joint production with the NATO-compatible French-Italian Aster 30 system.
Turkish newspapers on Nov. 26 reported another detail regarding the Erdoğan-Trump conversation. Erdoğan reportedly reminded Trump of the extradition of Fethullah Gülen, the Islamist preacher accused of masterminding the July 2016 coup attempt, and Trump said he would “consider the case again.” Partly because of Erdoğan’s high-profile campaign against him, Gülen is viewed by some circles in Washington as a kind of philanthropic opposition leader in exile. But in Turkey he is widely seen as the head of an illegal Islamist network. Either way, the issue of Gülen is a real problem that Trump has inherited from previous president Obama.
There was no mention in either Turkey or Washington’s statements whether the Erdoğan-Trump conversation also addressed the court case of Reza Zarrab, the Iranian-Turkish businessman accused of violating the U.S. embargo on Iran through gas-for-gold trade together with Turkish public bank manager Hakan Atilla. The key court hearing in the case, which was supposed to take place on Nov. 27 (today), was adjourned because the jury has not yet been formed, but that stage is expected to be completed today. Amid reports that Zarrab will plead guilty, thus leaving Atilla as the only defendant in the case, the issue has been making Erdoğan anxious as there is the possibility of sanctions against Turkish state bank Halkbank, which could have a chilling effect on Turkey’s economy.
The Nov. 24 telephone conversation between Trump and Erdoğan - coming after the Nov. 9 meeting between Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım and U.S. Vice President Michael Pence – seems to have helped decrease the strain between the two countries slightly. But it is too early to jump to conclusions that Erdoğan and Trump have left their problems behind and are moving on. After all, a big upcoming hurdle is what will happen in the aftermath of the crucial Zarrab hearing.