After the Trump-Erdogan Meeting: A New Start in Relations?

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was at the White House on May 16 for his first meeting with President Donald Trump, exactly four years to the day after his meeting there with President Barack Obama. Despite Trump’s assertion to the contrary during their joint statements, Erdogan had also visited the White House last year, and his numerous visits there go back to December 2002. The statements by the two leaders, which followed a relatively brief private meeting and a long lunch discussion accompanied by their delegations, as well as their post-meeting tweets, suggested mutual satisfaction with their encounter. To be sure, all Washington summits are pre-destined to be publicly characterized as successes, irrespective of private differences, as both sides have an incentive to maximize the positive. However, with the two leaders set to attend the NATO Summit on May 25, it remains to be seen whether focusing on the invariably impressive form of a White House meeting rather than divisive content will help put the troubled U.S.-Turkish relationship back on track.

Trump’s invitation had been extended on April 17, when he chose to break with the common line adopted by other Western leaders to call Erdogan to offer congratulations on his narrow victory in the constitutional referendum the previous day. However, the formal announcement of the meeting was not made until May 10 when the White House spokesman said that the two leaders would “discuss how to further strengthen our bilateral relationship and deepen our cooperation to confront terrorism in all its forms.” Not surprisingly, the brief statement did not reflect the negative atmosphere that had developed after Trump’s surprise decision on May 9 to confirm the growing U.S. reliance on the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the campaign to reclaim Raqqa, the capital of the self-proclaimed caliphate, from the Islamic State (ISIS) and, in that context, to provide arms directly to the Syrian Kurdish militia, the YPG, the dominant element in the SDF, over vociferous and sustained Turkish objections. Turkey views the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which it has been fighting since 1984. Reacting to the U.S. decision and its willingness to draw a distinction between the YPG and the PKK to facilitate cooperation with the former in Syria, Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu charged on May 10 that “weapons given to YPG end up in the hands of PKK.”

From Erdogan’s point of view, the timing of Trump’s decision to move ahead with this option, recommended by the outgoing administration in its final days and then subjected to a review by the new administration, could not have been worse. In addition to being made within days of his visit, it came while a high-level advance team, including the commander of the Turkish Armed Forces and his top intelligence and foreign policy advisers, was still in Washington to reiterate Ankara’s case against it. It is interesting to note that during their May 8 meeting with National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, their host escorted them into the Oval Office for a brief handshake with the president.

Hopes of a New Start

Having carefully avoided any criticism of Trump since his election, while publicly building up expectations of closer cooperation in contrast to the troubled relationship with Obama during his final three years because of growing links with the YPG, Erdogan nurtured hopes of a new start with the new American leader. His phone call to Trump on November 9, the day after his surprise victory, was among the first batch of congratulatory calls by foreign leaders. Erdogan said afterwards that he had informed Trump that he would be “very pleased to meet with him as soon as possible,” had asked him “if he could make one of his first trips abroad to Turkey before January 20,” and he had “responded favorably.” As the advance statement by his foreign policy adviser and spokesman Ibrahim Kalin hours before the conversation that there would be a call between the two men confirmed, there was clearly a functioning channel between Ankara and the Trump team, possibly through a Turkish businessman with connections to Ivanka Trump. This was underlined by an unusual second call to Trump by Prime Minister Binali Yildirim on November 11.

Erdogan’s cultivation of Trump continued throughout the two-and-a-half-month period between the election and the inauguration. On November 23, Erdogan said “The ballot box said Trump. Respect that. They come to us and say ‘Trump spoke against Muslims and Islam.’ We are used to such things in politics. This is what is said today, and then this mistake is corrected. We should definitely not be deceived; we should be careful and sensitive.” Erdogan’s attitude to Trump had clearly changed from last summer when he had publicly denounced him for calling for a ban on Muslim travel to the United States during his campaign. On June 25, Erdogan had publicly demanded that Trump’s name be taken down from a high-rise building in Istanbul constructed through cooperation between his family and the Dogan Group.

Erdogan expected that the incoming administration would be more attentive to Turkey’s concerns, especially in Syria. On November 13, for example, he said “The statements that Trump made before the election, especially the statements from his close circle, reflected similar opinions to ours regarding Syria, Iraq…They have similar opinions…We hope to discuss these issues and take the necessary steps once he takes over.” He coupled such expressions of hope with criticism of the outgoing administration. On November 19, he told CBS “We have addressed these issues, discussed them with President Obama and Vice President Biden. They failed to rise to the occasion and handle these issues seriously. This is quite upsetting for us.”

There was no direct second contact between the two leaders until a February 8 phone conversation, facilitated through Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn. As he was subsequently obliged to reveal to the Justice Department, Flynn had indirect links to Turkey stretching back to August 2016, when he had signed a lobbying contract with Ekim Alptekin, a Turkish-Dutch businessman with important connections in Ankara. On the day Trump was elected, Flynn had published an article in the Hill newspaper in which he wrote “We must begin with an understanding that Turkey is vital to U.S. interests. Turkey is really our strongest ally against ISIS, as well as a source of stability in the region.” Flynn had also criticized the Obama administration’s policy for “keeping Erdogan’s government at arm’s length, an unwise policy that threatens our long-standing alliance…We need to adjust our foreign policy to recognize Turkey as a priority. We need to see the world from Turkey’s perspective.” The article included a denunciation of Fethullah Gulen, the U.S.-based Muslim cleric whose extradition had been forcefully demanded by Ankara as the instigator of the failed July 15 coup. Referring to him as “Mollah Gulen,” and noting that “from the Turkish point of view,” Washington was “harboring Turkey’s Osama bin Laden,” Flynn argued that the United States “should not provide him safe haven.”

The Trump-Erdogan call, which was dominated by discussion of Syria, followed Flynn’s rejection of the recommendation made to him during the transition by outgoing National Security Adviser Susan Rice to arm the Syrian Kurds for the Raqqa operation, and Trump’s subsequent decision to initiate a 30-day review of options by the Defense Department. The White House readout of the conversation, presumably prepared under Flynn’s supervision, referred pointedly to “Turkey’s contributions to the counter-ISIS campaign.” Additional details were provided by Kalin, who said that after Erdogan had repeated his opposition to the Obama administration’s engagement with the Syrian Kurds, he had found Trump to be “more receptive” to Turkey’s alternative Raqqa plan, as well as its demand for Gulen’s extradition. Kalin continued “We are presenting them with a concrete plan to expel ISIS from Raqqa. Trump’s attitude is positive. Detailed planning around this issue will now be coordinated…Arming the YPG was the Obama administration’s decision.” He added “It took no steps in regards to Gulen’s extradition…Mr. Trump and Mr. Flynn will start working on this.” On February 9, Erdogan was reported by a well-connected Turkish columnist to have told his close circle that he would “get along well” with Trump before personally pitching his proposal to the new CIA director, Mike Pompeo, who was sent to Turkey by Trump to follow up their discussion.

The intensification of contacts between the two sides during this period continued with the prompt dispatch to Washington of a high-level Turkish delegation led by Undersecretary Umit Yalcin of the Foreign Ministry. On February 13, they discussed the Turkish plan on Raqqa with members of the Trump national security team led by Flynn. However, much to the disappointment of the Turkish side, Flynn was forced to resign that evening. To make matters worse, leaks by U.S. officials made it clear that CENTCOM commander General Joseph Votel, who is overseeing the anti-ISIS campaign, remained deeply skeptical about cooperating with Turkey instead of the Syrian Kurds in the Raqqa operation. Nevertheless, Ankara persisted, and Defense Minister Fikri Isik met with his counterpart Jim Mattis at NATO on February 15 to follow up on Turkey’s offer and warn that “Counterterrorism operations will not succeed as long as one terrorist organization is picked over another.”

Two days later, there was a meeting between the Turkish chief of staff, Hulusi Akar, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joseph Dunford, during which Akar outlined two plans for the Raqqa operation. One of these involved Turkish-backed Syrian opposition groups and Turkish forces marching directly south from Turkey through YPG-controlled territory to Raqqa. The Turkish arguments failed to sway the new administration, and soon after its review came to an end on February 27, there were fresh newspaper stories that Mattis had recommended a continuation and expansion of existing policy. On March 4, the Washington Post reported that this included “significant U.S. military participation, including increased Special Operations forces, attack helicopters and artillery, and arms supplies to the main Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighting force on the ground.”

Despite these reports, Ankara persisted with its effort to sway Washington. These included Erdogan’s March 30 meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Ankara, Isik’s April 14 meeting with Mattis in Washington—after which Isik stated that the United States had “not made its final decision”—as well as Akar’s meeting with Dunford on May 5, “one of 15 in one year” according to Dunford on May 19. However, for their part, the Syrian Kurds continued to exude confidence that the decision would go their way. Talal Sello, in his capacity as SDF spokesman, stated on March 31 that “since the beginning of the plan to isolate Raqqa and liberate the countryside, then the city, we had an agreement with the coalition, with the Americans, that we would be the sole force involved. They did propose a Turkish role, which we rejected, and eventually, our idea was accepted.”

Before the third call between the two leaders on April 17, Trump chose to meet with the Jordanian king, the Saudi deputy crown prince, and the Iraqi prime minister for discussions of the Middle East before the leader of Turkey, a country that Vice President Mike Pence had described to the Hurriyet correspondent in New York on election night as “the U.S.’s most important ally in the region.” However, there was indirect contact through Rudy Giuliani, an influential Trump surrogate during the campaign, who visited Erdogan in Ankara in his capacity as a private lawyer to talk about the case of Turkish/Iranian national Reza Zarrab, who has been in jail in New York for over a year waiting for his trial for evading U.S. sanctions on Iran. In an affidavit filed with Zarrab’s judge on April 19, Giuliani stated that he had offered to provide his services “to determine whether this case can be resolved as part of some agreement between the United States and Turkey that will promote the national security interests of the Unites States and redound to the benefit of Mr. Zarrab.”

Trump’s YPG Decision

Trump’s April 17 call was important to Erdogan as it helped to provide international legitimacy for his narrow and disputed victory in the constitutional referendum the previous day. It also encouraged him to believe that there was still an opportunity for military cooperation on Raqqa. Erdogan noted the following day that he had told Trump “Turkey and the U.S., as coalition forces, we are capable of easily succeeding in the fight against ISIS.” Responding to a question on April 19 on whether Trump had promised any changes in U.S. policy, Erdogan commented “They already promised us that we should work in solidarity against terrorist organizations. Our one-on-one meeting will detail this effort…We previously had an agreement on the PKK issue. We also had this agreement during the Obama administration but Obama, unfortunately, deceived us on the YPG, but I do not presume that the Trump administration will do the same.” However, the Turkish leader’s expectations relating to a change of policy during his upcoming meeting were dashed on May 9 when it was announced that Trump had “authorized the Department of Defense to equip Kurdish elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces as necessary to ensure a clear victory over ISIS in Raqqa” as “the only force on the ground that can successfully seize Raqqa in the near future.”

While he had spoken in general terms about his “secret plan” to defeat ISIS and the role coalition partners might play, Trump had consistently stated his admiration for the Kurds and their importance in the fight against ISIS. As early as June 25, 2015, for example, he had stated “We do have some great fighters with the Kurds. And they are the ones that really do seem to be the fighters. And they know what they’re doing. But they don’t have the equipment. We’re giving our equipment to people that run every time a bullet gets fired.” On August 29, 2015, he had added “We should be using and utilizing those people. They have great heart. They are great fighters. And we should be working with them much more so than we’re working.” In an interview with the New York Times on July 21, 2016, Trump had coupled his characterization of himself as “a fan of the Kurds and Kurdish forces” with his hope that “at the same time, we could have a potentially very successful relationship with Turkey. It would be really wonderful if we could put them somehow both together.”

Trump’s decision to rely on Votel as the commanding general and Brett McGurk as the top civilian in the effort against ISIS had given an early indication that Trump was unlikely to undercut their implementation of a policy relying on Kurdish forces. Moreover, given his stated willingness to defer to his generals to a far greater extent than his micromanaging predecessor, it was likely that Trump would go further than Obama in supporting Votel’s recommendations, particularly as they had gained the support of Dunford and Mattis. However, like Obama, Trump wanted to try to limit the damage to the relationship with Turkey, and the announcement of his decision on May 9 stressed that the United States was “keenly aware of the security concerns of our coalition partner Turkey,” and “committed to preventing additional security risks and protecting our NATO ally.” This was amplified by Mattis after his meeting with Yildirim in London on May 11. He said that he had “no doubt that Turkey and the U.S. will work this out with due consideration…We agree 100 percent with Turkey’s concern about the PKK, a named terrorist group. We do not ever give weapons to the PKK. We never have and never will.”

Maximizing the Positive

Although the decision to supply arms to the YPG was characterized as “a crisis by itself” by Isik after a telephone conversation with Mattis on May 10, and the Turkish opposition called for a cancellation of the trip, Erdogan chose to suppress his disappointment. On May 10, he expressed the hope that “this mistake will be reversed immediately.” If not, Erdogan said on May 12, he hoped that it would be done during his “discussions at the highest level with President Trump.” Characterizing the visit by his aides to Washington as “merely preparatory,” he said that the United States was “still going through a transition period” and that much of the information coming from Washington was “gossip.” However, the unpleasant reality was that Trump’s decision had preempted Erdogan’s plan to use his visit to personally persuade Trump not to go any further with the Syrian Kurds. Consequently, with the most important item for discussion effectively taken off the agenda, Erdogan was forced to make the most of his first personal interaction with Trump, while trying to lay the ground for a good relationship with the new American leader.

Perhaps because he had not prepared for his meeting with the Turkish leader as thoroughly as his meticulous predecessor or, just as likely, did not have much to announce, Trump emphasized in his remarks at the White House historical ties stretching back to Turkish soldiers’ “bravery in the fight in Korea” while promising “support against the PKK” and “reinvigorating trade and commercial ties.” He also promised to ensure the “quick” supply of military equipment ordered by Turkey. In his own longer remarks between their private meeting and lunch, Erdogan hailed Trump’s “historic election victory” and invited him to Turkey with his family. He also stressed “ties and common interests” and “the strategic partnership” and said that he was looking forward to “a new era in relations.” With his host distracted by unprecedented domestic turmoil, which has made it even more imperative to achieve the quick victory against ISIS he had promised in his campaign, and unwilling to veer away from his decision, Erdogan chose to restrict himself to a reaffirmation of Turkey’s position that dealing with the YPG was “a definite violation” of the agreement between the two countries.

To be sure, Trump could have helped Erdogan by making concessions on the other important issues in the relationship, but there was no apparent movement either in the long-stalled extradition request for Fethullah Gulen—who had persuaded the Washington Post to publish his op-ed critical of Erdogan the previous day—despite Erdogan’s expression of hope on April 20 that Trump would “do what Obama could not…at least, by means of an executive decision,” or in the Zarrab case, which has drawn Erdogan’s attention and led him to raise it with Trump just as he had with Obama, given its serious potential repercussions because of the alleged criminal connections involving former ministers. For his part, Erdogan refrained from an immediate response to the request by Trump and Pence for the release of Pastor Andrew Brunson, who has been detained in Turkey since last October because of suspected links to the Gulen Movement. However, despite the lack of any concrete achievements, both leaders chose to express satisfaction after their meeting. After Trump tweeted “It was a great honor to welcome the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to the White House today!,” Erdogan responded “Thanks for your hospitality, Mr. President. I believe today’s meeting will strengthen our longstanding alliance and strategic partnership.”

In his first comments to Turkish journalists who had traveled with him to Washington a few hours after the meeting, Erdogan predictably focused on Trump’s YPG move. He said “The U.S. has made its decision about Raqqa. We are telling them that we cannot accept such an approach, we absolutely cannot work with you on this…I believe that they will knock on our door regarding Syria” as Turkey could “not be kept out as a decision maker.” He explained his position further on May 19 after returning to Turkey. “Seeing that they will do the Raqqa operation themselves, we said that we could not participate in an operation in which they are cooperating with terrorist organizations, we said good luck with it.” Erdogan said that he had “told them that we would use our right given the rules of engagement if these terrorist organizations pose any threat to our country. We are stating in advance that we will not speak or consult with anyone regarding this, and take our step accordingly. We are in a situation in which none of the promises have been kept, and at the same time, the terrorist organizations have gotten stronger. Turkey is not a country that gives consent to such treatment. Euphrates Shield was the first step that we took to spoil this game. We will not hold back from conducting similar operations if needed.”

Erdogan’s warning was meant to be taken seriously as Turkish jets had struck the YPG headquarters in northern Syria for the first time on April 25, reportedly killing 20 militants. After the attack, Ilham Ahmed, the co-chair of the Democratic Syrian Council, the SDF’s political arm, called on the United States to “take a clear stand against Turkish aggression…We are fighting with the U.S. and Turkey is hitting us from behind,” and YPG commander Sipan Hemo warned that “If these attacks continue, the Raqqa operation will suffer as we will have to fight on two fronts.” Washington moved quickly to reassure its Syrian Kurdish allies. The State Department criticized the attack for having been conducted “without proper coordination either with the United States or the broader global coalition to defeat ISIS” and having caused “unfortunate loss of life of our partner forces in the fight against ISIS,” while the CENTCOM Combined Joint Task Force spokesperson said that it had “endangered nearby U.S. forces.” Even more importantly, Washington authorized U.S. soldiers to join the YPG in patrolling along the Turkish-Syrian border to “discourage escalation and violence.”

In another sign of solidarity with the Syrian Kurds, McGurk visited YPG-controlled territory to meet with SDF and YPG commanders while Erdogan was in Washington. Cavusoglu responded angrily on May 18 by saying that he had warned Tillerson about McGurk, who was “clearly supporting the YPG and PKK” and called for his dismissal. However, the State Department responded through a press release on the same day praising McGurk’s “tremendous work” and reaffirming that he had the “full support and backing of Secretary Tillerson and the White House.” McGurk was then invited to join Mattis and Dunford at the Pentagon news conference on May 19 to discuss the campaign to defeat ISIS. The following day, a U.S. convoy transported a major consignment of arms and equipment to the SDF across the Iraqi-Syrian border in accordance with Trump’s decision and Washington’s willingness to proceed over Turkish objections and warnings.

While the positive optics of the White House meeting helped to mask the absence of any concrete progress, the summit has been overshadowed by the violent scuffle involving Erdogan’s bodyguards and demonstrators near the Turkish ambassador’s residence a few hours later. The incident, which has very serious potential implications for the relationship, immediately prompted a spate of negative stories in the American visual and print media and led to the unprecedented summoning of the Turkish ambassador to the State Department the following day. Spokesperson Heather Nauert commented that “Violence was never an appropriate response to free speech” and that the United States was conveying its “concern…in the strongest possible terms.” The initial Turkish reaction came from its embassy on May 18, which stated that the “violence and injuries were the result of unpermitted, provocative demonstration.” This was followed up by the summoning of the U.S. ambassador in Ankara to the Foreign Ministry on May 22 for a formal complaint about “aggressive and unprofessional action” by U.S. security personnel “contrary to diplomatic rules and practices” and a demand for “a full investigation of this diplomatic incident.”

As investigations by the police and federal authorities proceeded, the ripples of the incident spread far beyond the diplomatic arena in Washington. On May 18, Senator John McCain stated twice on live TV that “the Turkish Ambassador should be thrown the hell out of the U.S.,” a call that was immediately supported by Senator Claire McCaskill. McCain followed up in a joint letter with Senator Dianne Feinstein to Erdogan urging him “to hold accountable those members of your staff who violently attacked peaceful protestors in our nation’s capital. Another letter on the same day sent to the Turkish ambassador by Senators Lindsey Graham and Patrick Leahy noted that “peaceful assembly and freedom of speech are fundamental rights in this country” and that “the aggressiveness and brutality demonstrated by the Turkish security personnel…was an attack against these very rights…and an unnecessary and self-inflicted strain on bilateral relations.” A May 22 letter signed by 29 congressmen addressed to Tillerson criticized the Turkish security personnel’s actions as “not only criminal” but also as “affronts to U.S. values” and asked him to “ensure that these men are held fully accountable for their actions.” For his part, Tillerson stated in response to a question on Fox TV on May 21 that while the State Department would “wait and see the outcome” of the investigation, the United States had “expressed dismay at what occurred at the Turkish Embassy.”

A resolution relating to the incident was unanimously approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee on May 25. It called for “Turkish security officials who directed, oversaw, or participated in efforts to illegally suppress peaceful protests…to be charged and prosecuted” and asked the State Department to “waive the immunity of any Turkish security detail official engaged in assault.” At a broader level, it called on the United States to “combat efforts by foreign leaders to suppress free and peaceful protest in their own countries.” The debate was notable for the severity of the criticism directed at Erdogan, as well as the stated willingness of several committee members to join future protests in front of the Turkish embassy. These included Dana Rohrabacher, who subsequently chaired a subcommittee meeting with witnesses who had participated in the demonstration. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen announced that a letter would be sent to the Justice Department and the State Department by a number of members asking for “the participating Turkish personnel to be expelled and those abroad to be barred from future entry.”

House Speaker Paul Ryan thanked the House Foreign Affairs Committee for its “swift action.” He said “The violent crackdown on peaceful protesters by Turkish security forces was completely indefensible” and called on Turkey’s leaders to “fully condemn and apologize for this brutal behavior against innocent civilians exercising their First Amendment rights.” It is worth noting that there was bipartisan discomfort relating to Turkey in Congress before the incident, exemplified by a letter sent to Trump by 81 congressmen on the day of his meeting with Erdogan warning him about “the continuing erosion of human rights and the dramatic decline of democratic values.” With the mood on Capitol Hill shifting to an openly critical and even confrontational mode toward Turkey in the aftermath of the conflagration, parallel to unprecedented criticism in the media coming from both the right and the left, Trump’s room for maneuver with Erdogan has shrunk considerably. Consequently, the question for the time being is not about a new start in the relationship but the very real possibility of further deterioration.

Photo credit: Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Image
Bulent Aliriza
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program

Zeynep Yekeler

Research Assistant, Turkey Project