Why Trump will likely leave Erdogan empty-handed

It will be a clear collision of The Art of the Deal and “America First” when U.S. President Donald Trump welcomes Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the White House Tuesday.

Erdogan's expectations for new Turkey-U.S. relationship are already on shaky ground

U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are meeting today at the White House in Washington in what is amounting to an important summit for the NATO allies. (John Moore/AFP/Getty Images, Jure Makovec/Getty Images)

The conversations so far have been cordial, diplomatic. There's so much on the line. But just days before U.S. President Donald Trump was set to meet Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the White House, Washington delivered a welcome basket loaded with a land mine.

Actual weapons and who gets them are the issue. Knowing that one of Turkey's biggest demands of the U.S. is not to arm certain Kurdish fighters in Syria, the White House announced last week it would be doing just that.

The decision dropped just as a high-level delegation, including the head of Turkey's Armed Forces, the intelligence service and Erdogan's chief adviser, was in Washington for meetings ahead of the main event Tuesday.

"It will be a tough meeting," said Prof. Huseyin Bagci of Middle East Technical University in Ankara.

"Tayyip Erdogan has never been pushed to the corner by any American president as is the case today. This is a very bad point for him."

It's also a clear signal of what Turkey won't get out of Tuesday's U.S.-Turkey summit, and a strong hint of what the future holds for these NATO allies.

Ahmet Kasim Han, an associate professor at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, calls it a "blunt" but "complicated" blow —a shrewd move that's "one for the history books."
Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units (YPG) stand near a U.S military vehicle in Syria near the Turkish border on April 28. It's expected the U.S. decision to provide arms to Kurdish fighters in Syria will be part of the White House discussions. (Rodi Said/Reuters)

"The [Trump] administration is now not sensitive to Turkey's priorities and that is going to be a problem," Han said.

Potentially, there could be many problems — a less stable Turkey, a less stable region.

The Kurdish issue alone, Asli Aydintasbas and Kemal Kirisci point out in their recent research for Washington think-tank the Brookings Institution, is at "a potentially explosive stage." It isn't just Turkey that would be burned by that explosion. Security in Iran, Iraq and Syria is also at stake.

The YPG factor

The group of Kurdish fighters known as the YPG was always going to be on the Trump-Erdogan agenda. The U.S. decision to give them arms suggests it will likely be the most important part of their discussions.

Officials in Washington, including Pentagon spokesperson Dana White, said the YPG is "necessary to ensure a clear victory," specifically in Raqqa, the main hub for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Syria.

It is very critical that the eventual political map of northern Syria be drawn along ethnically sensitive lines.- Asli Aydintasbas and Kemal Kirisci

Turkey, though, points out the YPG is an extension of the PKK, the Kurdish militant group deemed a terror organization by the U.S., the European Union and Ankara. It insists the U.S. is laying a dangerous bedrock for future instability in the region, essentially fighting terrorists with terrorists.

"Every weapon in the hands of the YPG is a threat to Turkey," Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said shortly after the announcement.

On Friday, with a decisive but diplomatic tone rarely delivered when Erdogan speaks about other Western countries, the president said at a news conference in Ankara that he still sees the makings of a "new beginning" with Washington, but added, "I always say it and I'm going to say it again: targeting a terror group and trying to eradicate them with another terror group is not, in my view, an ideal understanding of politics."

The U.S. YPG decision was a clear signal the U.S. isn't going to let Turkey's concerns dictate its decision, and it came just a few weeks after Turkey sent its own strong signal — firing airstrikes at Kurdish targets in late April. The U.S. was notified, but not amused.

Old wounds, new boundaries

For Turkey, the problems don't end with ridding the region of ISIS or securing peace in Syria. The Turkish government is vehemently opposed to the creation of a Kurdish belt at its border.

In dissecting the decades-old Turkey-U.S. relationship, Aydintasbas and Kirisci's research makes clear what they believe needs to happen next.
The meeting with the Turkish president is considered high stakes for the nascent Trump administration as it looks to engage regional allies in delicate security matters while enforcing international standards for human rights. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/Reuters)

"It is very critical that the eventual political map of northern Syria be drawn along ethnically sensitive lines."

They also write, "Ankara is concerned that the Sunni Arab and Turkmen towns on its border area [namely Tel Abyad, Raqqa, Azaz, Manbij and Jarablus] do not connect with a PKK-affiliated Kurdish zone."

1st face-to-face meeting

For Trump, it will be a balance of The Art of the Deal and "America First" as he tries to keep Erdogan placated without actually delivering anything on Turkey's wish list — not the Kurdish issue and not the extradition of Turkey's most wanted man, Fethullah Gulen, either. Ankara believes Gulen, a cleric who has been living in the U.S. since 1999, and his followers planned and carried out the deadly coup attempt last summer.

While the White House may not be willing to give Turkey what it wants, Bagci said Trump "has to deal with Turkey. Turkey is an economic and geopolitical colossus in this part of the world."

Erdogan arguably has a lot more on the line. He is already facing domestic anger about Washington's YPG decision. Many in his camp who are used to his tough talk with European leaders have been demanding he cancel the meeting with Trump.

Bagci believes Erdogan has no choice but to accept what the U.S. decides.

"Erdogan's manoeuvre space is more limited now than ever before." Deteriorating relations with the EU are just part of the problem.

Han says the "Turkish government will do everything under their power to not let any kind of development totally ruin their relationship with the United States. They do need an anchor in the West no matter what because of both financial and political reasons." 

And, turning eastward, cozying up to Russia, as Turkey recently has, has its limitations. There are too many differences, analysts insist, for that relationship to ever replace Turkey's relationship with Washington.

Erdogan and Putin recently reset relations between their countries during a meeting in Sochi, but analysts say Russia cannot replace Turkey's ties to the U.S. (Reuters)

Even if the Trump administration's manoeuvres have Turkey in a bind, don't assume Erdogan can't afford to push back. 

"If President Erdogan feels something is costing him dearly on the domestic front, he would do whatever is necessary to stop [it]," Han said.

There was a hint of that this morning. Speaking to reporters as he finished a visit to China before heading to Washington, Erdogan said of the U.S. YPG decision, "If we are a strategic alliance, we should make decisions as an alliance." If not, he added "We'll have to take care of ourselves."

The personalities at play and the blunt force political trauma both leaders are used to levelling are why this meeting will be so riveting and important. 

It could mark the beginning of a more rocky period in Turkish-American relations, but perhaps not rock bottom.

"They do know that they need each other," Han said. "So, at least in the short term, I don't expect a train wreck, but it is going to take a lot of work to take care of both sides in the relationship."

About the Author

Nil Köksal is the host of World Report, CBC's flagship national radio news show. She begins her mornings with more than a million loyal listeners. She recently returned from her post as CBC’s foreign correspondent in Turkey.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.