Uncertainties in US-Turkey relations in Trump era

Uncertainties in US-Turkey relations in Trump era

It was an election where the American voters did not choose who they wanted more as president, but who they disliked less. Donald Trump eventually won against Hillary Clinton despite all support from the establishment and the media.

Trump was elected as the 45th president of the U.S. on Nov. 8. His unpleasant remarks on Muslims, blacks, Latinos and women did have not have a decisively negative impact; on the contrary, they had a positive effect on the white, uneducated, jobless masses.

Trump will also be the first Republican president since 1928 able to enjoy full Congressional support, both in the House and the Senate. That will give him an upper hand not only in domestic politics but also in world politics as the new commander-in-chief. His campaign slogan was “Make America Great Again,” and he will want to demonstrate this. 

President Barack Obama has been criticized, even by the defeated Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, for being too pacifist in his policies on the Middle East. Obama’s line in Iraq and Syria has been accused of triggering the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), or DAESH using Arabic initials. His delay in getting involved in the Syria civil war and reluctance to send troops, because of his no-boots-on-the-ground policy, ultimately led to cooperation being forged with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The latter is considered a terrorist group by both the U.S. and its NATO ally Turkey, against which the PKK has been waging an armed campaign for the last three decades. 

Disagreement over the YPG is one of two major problems between Washington and Ankara right now: Turkey wants the U.S.’s support and supply of arms to the YPG to end and says it is ready to cooperate more against ISIL in Syria and Iraq.

The second major problem is the case of Pennsylvania-based Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen. A former ally of President Tayyip Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti), Gülen is now accused by both the government and the opposition of being behind Turkey’s bloody military coup attempt of July 15.

Ankara wants him to be extradited or at least taken into custody, (based on a previous legal agreement between the two countries), in order to stop him from giving instructions to his secret network in Turkey and elsewhere. Following Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ’s recent trip to the U.S. to submit files of evidence against Gülen, an unnamed U.S. official told the media that Gülen’s network “looked like a criminal money-laundering organization,” rather than an innocent religious group.

The Gülen issue is so important for Ankara that even in his congratulatory message to Trump, Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım referred to the Gülen case as being a litmus test for better relations between Turkey and the U.S. in the coming term.

It is possible that Trump, who once questioned Clinton because of the donations she received from Gülen, could take legal action against the exiled preacher, if not extradite him (which is subject to complicated court procedures). 

On Syria, Iraq and the PKK, military-to-military diplomacy has already started between Turkey and the U.S., after the Ankara meeting on Nov. 6 between the chiefs of staff of the two countries. Trump is likely to follow hawkish policies, while sticking with the NATO line and trying to cut a deal with Erdoğan on Syria, Iraq and the PKK/YPG issue.

If the Gülen and YPG questions are addressed, the current tension in Turkey-U.S. relations may even turn into more cooperation in regional matters under President Trump.