With friends like these, who need enemies?
On the same day as the Washington Post published an editorial “unwelcoming” Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan to U.S. soil and urging U.S. President Donald Trump to stop arms sales to Turkey, Trump thanked Ankara for hosting refugees fleeing from the civil war in Syria in his Sept. 19 speech at the U.N. General Assembly.
Before the start of the sessions, Erdoğan had criticized U.S. lawmakers for opting to give weapons to the “enemies of Turkey” for free, while declining to sell them to NATO ally Turkey. He was referring to the military support given to the Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) - the backbone of which is the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is also designated as a terrorist group by the U.S. The U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) has been using the SDF as foot soldiers in ongoing operations against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
But this weapons complaint is far from the only problem between Erdoğan’s Turkey and Trump’s U.S. Most recently, a New York court issued an arrest warrant for a former economy minister of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government, Zafer Çağlayan, over alleged relations with an Iranian Turkish citizen, Reza Zarrab. The latter is currently under arrest and on trial in the U.S. on accusations of violating American sanctions on Iran.
Before that, arrest warrants were issued against 15 Turks, 12 of them from Erdoğan’s security team, involved in the beating up of protesters in front of the Turkish ambassador’s residence in Washington during Erdoğan’s visit in May. Erdoğan expressed anger at the court ruling, saying one of those mentioned in the indictment was not even there at the time, showing that the warrant was yet more evidence of “hostile judicial action” against himself and Turkey.
There are two other major issues of dispute. One is the problem of Fethullah Gülen’s continued residence in the U.S. A close ally-turned-archenemy of Erdoğan, the Islamist preacher Gülen is accused of masterminding the July 15, 2016 military coup attempt in Turkey. Erdoğan has long demanded that Trump lead extradition or at least legal action against Gülen, but has so far been met with a cold reply that this is the business of independent courts.
The other issue is over weapons systems. Due to the U.S.’s reluctance to sell Patriot air defense systems to Turkey alongside the transferal of technology and joint production, Erdoğan’s government is on the verge of closing a deal for a Russian S-400 system. This has upset the Trump administration, as the Russian system is not interoperable with NATO. Turkey replies that Greece has had Russian S-300 system for years with no problem raised by the U.S.
Erdoğan and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg had a meeting in New York on Sept. 18, due which this problem was also discussed.
Looking at the political agenda, there may well be even more problems in the near future between Ankara and Washington. Turkey is currently cooperating with Iran against the PKK and the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) independence referendum on Sept. 25. In his Sept. 19 speech, Trump called on all countries to stand against Iran because of its continued threats to Israel and “other neighbors.”
Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu also took the floor at the U.N., reiterating his position giving open support for a Kurdish state, which will divide Iraq and allow Israel to enjoy a buffer zone next to Iran, which could make the latter’s access to Syria and Lebanon more difficult.
Amid all this, Turkey has been building up its troops on its borders with Syria and Iraq, staging a military drill on the Iraqi border due to continue until Sept. 26, the day after the referendum date.
Erdoğan took the floor at the U.N. Assembly after listening to Trump’s speech, at a time when ever more faultlines seem to be added daily to the already complicated outlook in the Middle East.