Will Turkey burn its bridges with the US?
After U.S. President Donald Trump’s hosting of Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan in the White House on May 16, it is not realistic to expect relations between Ankara and Washington to either go back to normal overnight or to nosedive and destroy a long-running alliance.
It is true that the problems between them are serious. They are more serious for Turkey than the U.S., because Ankara sees two existential threats while Washington sees tactical details.
One of the issues is the U.S.’s cooperation against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) with the People’s Protection Units (YPG). Stressing that the YPG is the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) - which has been waging an armed campaign against Turkey for over three decades and designated a terrorist organization also by the U.S. - Erdoğan has been urging Trump to drop the YPG-focused Pentagon plan in order to reach full cooperation with NATO ally Turkey.
The other issue is the situation of Fethullah Gülen. A former ally of Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti), the Islamist preacher living in Pennsylvania is now accused of masterminding the July 2016 military coup attempt. Turkey wanted Gülen back to be tried on subversion charges even before the coup attempt, and at the very least it wanted legal action to be taken against him - which is actually possible according to a legal agreement between the two countries - in order to stop Gülen orchestrating his network in Turkey and elsewhere.
But a few days before Erdoğan’s visit to Washington, Trump approved a plan by the Pentagon to deliver more and heavier arms for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), of which the YPG is the backbone, ahead of the approaching military operation by U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) to take the Syrian city of Raqqa from the occupation of ISIL. By doing that, Trump also showed that he was ready for the possible closure of Turkey’s strategic İncirlik air base to U.S. flights, depriving Erdoğan of a major “trump card” in a possible bargain.
Following a recent meeting in China, Russian President Vladimir Putin also left Erdoğan no room to maneuver vis-a-vis Trump, by saying that Moscow would also maintain its contact with the YPG against ISIL.
As if to agitate the already tense situation even further, on the day when Erdoğan arrived in the U.S. the Washington Post printed an op-ed penned by Gülen himself. In it, he described the U.S. as a “second home” and presented himself as a man of peace in the world, holding Erdoğan as exclusively responsible for ruining hundreds and thousands of lives due to persecutions following the coup attempt. It was as if Gülen’s own illegal network within the state had no responsibility for ruining many other lives and institutions in Turkey up until a few years ago, before and during the AK Parti rule.
The situation of rights and freedoms in Turkey since the coup attempt has been deteriorating under the state of emergency. In the latest example, Oğuz Güven, the chief web editor of daily Cumhuriyet, which has over 10 of its writers, editors and executives already in jail, was arrested on May 15 over the headline of a news report about a car accident in which a prosecutor investigating many cases after the state of emergency was killed. Overall, there are over 150 journalists, writers and media executives currently in jail in Turkey.
This situation creates an antipathetic atmosphere against Erdoğan in the West, particularly when combined with the controversial way the referendum was carried out last month and the content of the changes passed, which resulted in the consolidation of all executive power in the president’s hands with weakened checks and balances.
However, Turkey does have legitimate security concerns, as a member of the Western alliance NATO.
Relations between Turkey and the U.S. are not limited to the YPG/PKK and the Gülen network. From Central Asia to the Balkans, from the Ukraine-Russia crisis to Mediterranean security, there are more than a dozen issues where the two countries are cooperating. And there are steps that both must take in order to keep this relationship going, which is in the interests of both of them.