Tillerson’s Turkey trip: expectations vs realities

Tillerson’s Turkey trip: expectations vs realities

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is scheduled to visit Turkey this Thursday. As his visit comes two months into the Trump administration, Ankara expects the secretary’s visit to re-establish and reinvigorate U.S.-Turkish relations. Tillerson is the first of Trump’s cabinet to visit Turkey, although many high-ranking officials have already made the trip.

Despite all warning signals – such as the Trump administration’s fascination with the idea of “radical Islamic terrorism” and the State Department spokesperson Mark Toner’s declaration that the White House does not see the Democratic Union Party and People’s Protection Units (PYD/YPG) as a terrorist organization – it comes as a great surprise to the American onlooker that there are still those who hold out hope in Ankara that Turkish-U.S. ties can be regenerated under the Trump administration. It may be easy to predict the inclinations and talking points of those hovering around the AK Saray; but looking into a new and arguably chaotic U.S. administration, it may not be so easy to elucidate the American response, although it will almost certainly not be in Turkey’s favor.

If those in Ankara are to continue to pursue Turkish-U.S. reconciliation, those in Ankara should (or ideally by now should have been able to) differentiate between their expectations and the reality of the Trump administration. Thus, a short guide has been prepared in order to ready Ankara for the likely realities it may face against the office of the U.S. secretary of state.

Expectation: Turkish and State Department officials will begin discussing a plan for the extradition of the U.S.-based imam Fethullah Gülen, who allegedly spearheaded the July 2016 coup attempt. 

Reality: Following The Wall Street Journal’s revelation this past weekend that ex-National Security Adviser Mike Flynn not only claims to have lobbied on behalf of the Turkish government but also allegedly met with high-ranking Turkish officials – including Secretary Tillerson’s counterpart, FM Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu – to discuss the extrajudicial extradition of Gülen, U.S. officials working with Turkey will be careful to avoid any conversation that might steer toward this topic, especially in a formal meeting. In addition to this measure of caution, the State Department will likely assert the fact that extraditions fall under the sphere of the Department of Justice, which Turkey has thus far been unsuccessful in convincing, and refuse to publicly acknowledge any discussion of the topic.

Expectation: The Tillerson team will unveil its designs for northern Syria and the PYD/YPG, which is right now the U.S.’ main ally against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria while also being viewed by Turkey as a terrorist organization.

Reality: The Trump team has yet to publicly disclose its position on the use of Syrian Kurds in the fight against ISIL, and U.S. institutions are known to disagree on potential future scenarios along Turkey’s borders.

 Although Tillerson himself has stated that the United States ought to increasingly work with NATO ally Turkey, his mind may have shifted upon ascending to his office and engaging with further diplomatic scenarios. Further, the dynamics in northern Syria have recently shifted upon Russia’s decision to plant a base (from which it claims to be “monitoring cease-fire agreements”) in Kurdish-controlled Afrin, which has puzzled parties on all sides. For Tillerson, as well as for the Trump administration as a whole, the Kremlin’s strength and share in the Syria conflict will play a greater role than those of Ankara. Ankara’s meeting with Tillerson may be Turkey’s final chance to assert its plans for and role in the operation to take Raqqa as its resistance to the YPG now carries the risk of losing it influence in international efforts to retake and rebuild Syria.

Expectation: Tillerson will get Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan an in with Trump.

Reality: Tillerson is far from the highest representative of the Trump administration, and the information that Ankara can garner from Trump’s State Department may vastly differ from the commands given at the White House. Early in his tenure as secretary of state, Tillerson was denied the appointment of Elliot Abrams as his deputy secretary of state, which was widely reported on in U.S. news circles as the determinant factor illustrating the low placement of Tillerson within the Trump hierarchy. If Tillerson is allowed to speak for anyone in his visit to Turkey this week, it will only be for one person – himself – and perhaps his department.

 Tillerson must fight his own way up Trump’s hierarchy before he can act on behalf of Turkey.

Seeing the dichotomy of expectations versus realities, Ankara is likely to continue to face problems in its relationship with Washington. While Tillerson’s visit can be seen as part of Washington’s efforts to continue to placate its alliance with Turkey until its April 16 referendum, long-term appeasement is not a viable policy for either side to enact, especially in the wake of the fight against ISIL, and will eventually lead to self-destruction.

Megan Gisclon is the managing editor of the Istanbul Policy Center.