What to expect from Erdoğan-Trump meeting?

What to expect from Erdoğan-Trump meeting?

Leaders’ meetings at the White House are often attributed great importance by Turkey’s media. Reporters meticulously search for hints to interpret the strength of the partnership between the two allies, from how many minutes the meeting lasts to the body language of the participants.

On May 16, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is expected to meet U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House for the first time since the latter took office in January.

However, the visit has already been overshadowed by Trump’s decision to supply arms to the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is fighting against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria as part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), ahead of an offensive on Raqqa.

Ankara has long opposed U.S. cooperation with YPG forces, which it sees as an affiliate of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). 

“Within the SDF, Arabs and the YPG should be distinguished and Arab forces should be the ones entering Raqqa,” Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said, adding that Erdoğan would discuss the issue with Trump in Washington next week.

At present, it is not clear what kind of reassurances might be offered to Turkey regarding the risks of directly arming the YPG.

Among the alternative plans being discussed in Washington is a U.S. offer to monitor weapons so as to prevent their transfer to the PKK, an assurance to Turkey that the YPG will leave Raqqa after its liberation.

While these ideas may, in theory, sound like a relief, given the difficulties of monitoring a warzone, they are far from reassuring for Turkey.

Worse, Trump’s decision will pave the way for the political recognition of the Syrian Kurds, which may eventually have serious repercussions regarding the status of the PKK. 

Although Trump’s decision could be seen coming from miles away, it has dealt a serious blow to relations and is likely to poison the Turkish-U.S. alliance in the long run.

So if the two sides are to sit at the table with non-negotiable demands regarding Syria, can there be any breakthrough on other issues, such as Fethullah Gülen, for instance?

Maybe. But contrary to the general conviction in Turkey regarding the operation of the presidential system, Trump does not have the authority to intervene or accelerate legal proceedings. 

But it is possible that he may order the Justice Department to transfer the files provided by Turkey on Gülen to the federal court for examination in line with Ankara’s request.

Also, new trade agreements could set a positive agenda, lifting the mood to an extent.

But overall, what might be the upshot of the visit?

One U.S. official said even though disagreements may remain between the two leaders, the holding of the meeting signifies the U.S. commitment to its alliance with Turkey. 

Accordingly, the two sides are expected to find middle ground, since broader interests regarding the fight against ISIL and balancing against Russia and Iran require cooperation between Ankara and Washington.

It is apparent that last week’s controversial remarks by chief presidential adviser İlnur Çevik that implied Turkey could strike U.S. forces in Syria, even if accidentally, caused serious resentment in Washington. The very fact that the visit was not canceled after Çevik’s remarks has been deemed a sign of the U.S.’s willingness to maintain dialogue.

And as for Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia, Washington is not convinced that Turkey actually sees Russia as an alternative to the U.S. Even Turkey’s possible purchase of a missile defense system from Russia is considered a waste of money given the enormous task of harmonizing such missiles with NATO systems.

Given that Trump is an unconventional politician who does not shy away from violating custom, Erdoğan’s visit next week may produce some surprises.

At the very least, the visit should cushion the blow caused by Trump’s controversial decision with fancy pictures, cool handshakes and bold and reassuring messages that will help Turkish media present the visit as a success.