Turkey is getting used to working with Trump
Donald Trump is the third United States president with whom Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been working since he came to power in late 2002. He worked with George W. Bush between 2002 and 2008 and then with Barack Obama until late 2016.
He always had ups and downs in his relations with all the three leaders, based on conflicting interests of the two long-standing partners over regional affairs and on the changing nature of the allied relationship between the two.
The Turkish Parliament’s refusal in allowing the U.S. to use the Turkish territories in a bid to attack Iraq’s Saddam Hussein regime in early 2003 had constituted a first major blow on Ankara-Washington ties after Erdoğan came to power. That followed the infamous “hood incident” in which a group of Turkish military personnel was captured and interrogated by the American contingent in northern Iraq in mid-2003. But it was the same Bush administration which granted to provide real-time intelligence to Turkey in its fight against the PKK in 2007, a move that helped the two allies build confidence.
Obama’s election as U.S. president opened a new chapter in Turkish-American ties. Obama paid one of his first trips to Turkey in 2009 and described bilateral ties as a model partnership, showing Turkey as a brilliant example of a Muslim country with democratic and secular values. Obama’s value-based and multilateral diplomacy gained Turkey’s appreciation as well. The U.S. president had identified Erdoğan among five global leaders he trusted the most.
The second four-year term of Obama, however, witnessed a drastic change in his ties with Erdoğan. First, it was because of Obama’s decision not to attack the Syrian regime mid-2013, despite being proven that Damascus had used chemical weapons against opposition groups. Obama’s hesitancy allowed other powers like Iran and Russia to intervene in Syria, which nixed global efforts to topple Bashar al-Assad, Ankara believes.
The second reason was Obama’s decision to partner with the YPG in fighting against ISIL in Syria. That’s why Erdoğan still blames the former president over the course of developments in this country. The third reason was the Obama administration’s harsh reactions on the Turkish government’s handling of the Gezi Protests in mid-2013, which kicked off a new, but a bad page on bilateral ties.
The last two years of Obama’s rule observed almost no genuine communication between the two countries. That’s why Trump’s election in the U.S. has been seriously welcomed in Turkey with expectations that this businessman-turned-politician would pragmatically resolve all pending issues between the two countries, especially on Fethullah Gülen’s extradition and Syria policies.
It was soon realized in Ankara that these expectations were a result of a wrong analysis. Trump also signed a decree to officially supply the YPG with weapons in a bid to follow Obama’s policy in Syria. On the bilateral front, he sanctioned Turkey for the continued imprisonment of pastor Andrew Brunson in mid-2018, giving a huge blow to bilateral ties, as well as on the Turkish economy. He has once again proven that he can be really dangerous with his undiplomatic, unpredictable and disrespectful manners.
Therefore, his latest tweet threatening Turkey to devastate its economy should its troops attack Kurds has been assessed by Ankara in the light of lessons taken from earlier crises.
The fact that Trump is a leader capable in negotiating under any circumstances has pushed the Turkish officials to adopt a soft stance, because, while Trump was threatening Turkey, he was at the same time suggesting a solution to the question by revisiting the buffer zone formula.
Erdoğan made clear that Turkey regards this proposal as a positive one worth further elaborating on its modalities, while at the same time reducing his tone over a prospected unilateral Turkish military action into Syria. After all, it seems the Turkish government is now better experienced in dealing with Trump.