Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Washington D.C. last week received stanch opposition not only from the Kurds and pro-democracy groups in the United States, but also both aisles of the political parties in the US Congress.
The meeting between President Trump and Erdogan included several points of tension between the United States and Turkey: Ankara’s purchase of the S400 missile defense system from Russia; their suspension from the F-35 fighter jet program, military incursion into northeastern Syria; a federal court case against Halkbank (the Turkish state-owned bank) and a Congressional sanctions bill including investigation into Erdogan’s family assets.
Erdogan has a special interest in the case against the state-owned bank due to alleged involvement of his inner circle in the scheme. Halkbank “was charged … in a six-count Indictment with fraud, money laundering, and sanctions offenses related to the bank’s participation in a multibillion-dollar scheme to evade U.S. sanctions on Iran.”
Another obvious important agenda item was the Turkish military incursion and its implications on the future of the Kurds in Syria, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the region in general.
For Turkey, any form of Kurdish autonomy in Syria is considered an existential threat. For the United States, however, the Kurds are reliable allies in the fight against ISIL and their situation became one of the contested issues between Washington D.C. and Ankara. Erdogan pressed the position that the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) and Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) are the same and the United States should not be aligned with the ‘terrorists’.
Further, during the press conference, he tried to discredit the commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces, Ferhat Abdi (a.k.a. Mazlum Konabe). By discrediting him, Erdogan aimed to discredit the PYD (offshoot of the PKK). This move aligned with the objectives of the Turkish military incursion into northeastern Syria.
While Erdogan and Trump responded to questions from journalists, Erdogan explicitly criticized Trump and US officials for inviting Mazloum Kobane to the White House. Trump responded to Erdogan by stating “A lot of that is definition – what’s your definition of the various groups within the Kurds. You have various groups and some like them and some don’t.” He implicitly reaffirmed the US position that they consider the PYD very differently than the PKK.
In other words, Trump and the entire US administration have a consensus on the idea that the PYD is a legitimate actor and the sole representative of the Kurds in Syria. Mazloum Kobane and the PYD have now become more legitimate than ever in the eyes of the international community despite the objections of Erdogan and Turkey.
Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government push a narrative that was meant strictly for domestic consumption which created an opposite effect and elevated the PYD’s position. In fact, Turkey’s military incursion acted as catalyst for PYD’s legitimacy and popularity. Using the remnants of al Qaeda affiliated militants as Turkey’s proxies further damaged Turkey’s image in the international community. This had a detrimental effect because Turkish-backed forces have been accused of committing war crimes against civilians in northeastern Syria.
As discussed in my previous piece at Rise to Peace, the US withdrawal and the Turkish military incursion into northeastern Syria have already created turmoil that has taken its toll. According to the Pentagon’s Inspector General report “ISIS has exploited the Turkish incursion and subsequent drawdown of US troops from northeastern Syria to reconstitute its capabilities and resources both within Syria in the short term and globally in the longer term.”
The S400 crisis is another major issue which has overarching implications, including Turkey’s future in NATO and Western Alliance. The purchase of the S400 defense system represents a blueprint of a major shift in Turkey’s axis. Seeing that there has been no concrete response from the United States, rather than considering it as a concerning issue, Erdogan’s leadership started to use the S400 crisis as leverage and exploit it against the United States and the European allies.
However, Erdogan is walking a thin line between the United States and Russia. While he is trying to contain the tensions with the United States, he also does not want to galvanize Russia which could become very costly for him domestically and internationally.
In his most recent remarks, Erdogan downplayed tensions between the United States and Turkey. He reiterated Trump’s critical position and emphasized the importance of US-Turkey relations. For Erdogan, his visit aimed to focus on “the areas of cooperation instead of deepening the chronic problems.” He also reemphasized that Turkey would not take a step back from the S400 deal with the Russians.
So, has Erdogan gained anything from his visit to Washington D.C.? The answer is a soft yes because he did not aim for complete success anyway. Erdogan’s most important gain was to have facetime with President Trump at White House which he desperately needed. In fact, Erdogan’s entire strategy relies on President Trump’s continuing courtship.
Turkey claims that neither Russia nor the United States kept their promises and threatens to expand its area of operation in northeastern Syria. Such an attitude would again create the opposite effect which would bring Russia and the United States against Turkey. In any case, the worst scenario could be deepening instability in the region in which ISIL benefits.
As for the Kurds in Syria, Erdogan’s visit confirmed that US support is firm and will continue notwithstanding the strong objections from Turkey. While concerns over ISIL resurfacing in Iraq and Syria are rising, Turkey’s ability to maneuver and pressure the Kurds will weaken.