The presidents of the United States and Turkey are finding common ground where seemingly there is none.
There could be many reasons why Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdogan are not meant to be friends. For one, the U.S. is protecting Erdogan’s archnemesis, Fethullah Gulen. Another is that Washington and Ankara have fractured relations over Turkey’s purchase of a Russian missile defense system.
Several other issues pit NATO allies Washington and Ankara against one another, though none larger at the moment than the matter of the Syrian Kurds. To Washington, the Syrian Kurds were the most trusted ally in the fight against the Islamic State. To Ankara, the Syrian Kurd military branch, the YPG, is one and the same with the PKK, which has long waged war against the Turkish state.
Upon receiving what amounted to a green light from U.S. President Donald Trump, Turkey started bombing Kurdish militants this week and sent its troops into Syria.
Casualties are now piling up, and convoys of families have been fleeing the area as thousands of people are currently displaced. Erdogan is receiving considerable international condemnation for Turkey’s new military operation, dubbed Peace Spring. Trump is receiving considerable condemnation, as well, for abandoning Washington’s Kurdish allies and for allowing what some are calling a mass slaughter.
In a way or possibly many ways, both Trump and Erdogan need this. It is Trump’s stated aim to restore America’s greatness while putting domestic needs first and withdrawing from pricey foreign entanglements. As for Erdogan, it seems at times his aim is to make Turkey the Ottoman Empire again. Erdogan implements Neo-Ottoman policy, and he has repeatedly expressed territorial ambitions, arguing that parts of neighboring countries are Turkish or really should belong to Turkey.
Both Trump and Erdogan have domestic hurdles to overcome. Trump is running for reelection amid an impeachment push. Erdogan has faced major electoral setbacks this year. His Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost control of Ankara and Istanbul. Additionally, Erdogan is faced with the possibility of the AKP fracturing, as some former allies of his are considering a shift to a new party.
Trump is a dealmaker, and Erdogan had been itching for a deal. He didn’t get one in the form of the extradition of Gulen, something the Turkish president sought from Trump. But now Erdogan’s got a deal in the form of the U.S. stepping aside as he carries out Turkish expansionism in Northern Syria.
Now Erdogan gets to triumphantly battle the close allies of a terror group with whom Turkey has been at war for decades. He also gets to bring a halt to what progress was made on the formation of a Kurdish state on Turkey’s border. While the international community may oppose these efforts, they constitute a strong hand to play within Turkey.
Meanwhile in the U.S., Trump gets to sell to his base that he is the president who finally keeps the promise of bringing home the troops. And in their respective countries, Trump and Erdogan can shift attention away from their domestic political hurdles.
For Erdogan, the order out of chaos playbook has worked before. Shortly after the AKP lost its parliamentary majority in the June 2015 election, Erdogan traded peace with Kurdish militants for war. As military operations ensued, terror attacks rose in frequency, and then a year later, a coup attempt occurred. Erdogan emerged from this chaos with the AKP still the ruling party and Turkey transformed from a parliamentary to presidential system, providing himself virtually unchecked power.
For Trump, going against the grain has been his modus operandi. Railing against the Washington establishment, both parties included, helped get Trump elected. Now he’s taking on both parties again as he tries to win reelection. Also, the Middle East in general, and Syria specifically, had been one matter on which Trump had let down many of his supporters. Pulling out U.S. troops, or even relocating them away from the fighting, could help him win back some supporters.
Despite Trump and Erdogan finding common ground, there are complexities to this friendship, or relationship between frenemies. The two leaders could easily be at loggerheads.
Trump, as a dealmaker, does make use of leverage. He has figured out Turkey’s economy, and specifically its badly weakened currency, is a point of leverage he holds over Erdogan and Ankara.
Amid the chaos this week, Trump took to Twitter to threaten he could “destroy and obliterate” Turkey’s economy. And Trump bragged he’s done so before.
While the tweet may amount to hyperbole, it is not an empty threat. Last year, Trump came to the defense of then-jailed American pastor Andrew Brunson and played hardball with Erdogan to get him released from Turkish prison. The Trump Administration slapped sanctions on Ankara over the jailing of Brunson and Trump tweeted about raising tariffs on Turkey and the lira’s rapid decline in value. The lira then plunged to a record low of about 6.5 to the dollar.
Erdogan had sought to swap Brunson for Gulen. Rather than getting the carrot, he got the stick. Instead of getting Gulen, Erdogan got sanctions and a free-falling lira. Trump had effectively forced Erdogan’s hand, and Ankara indeed backtracked.
Now as Turkey drops the hammer on the Syrian Kurds, American lawmakers are pressuring Trump to punish Erdogan. And congressional leaders are threatening to do so themselves if Trump will not. In turn, the Trump Administration is signaling it may hit Turkey with fresh sanctions.
“We can shut down the Turkish economy if we need to,” Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said Friday at a White House briefing.
Nevertheless, Trump repeatedly raises the point that the U.S. needs Turkey as a trading partner. And Turkey isn’t ready to jump ship either. This week’s military operation has put Ankara back at loggerheads with Moscow and Tehran. Even though Turkey cooperates with Russia and Iran, they are hardly on the same side of the Syrian conflict.
When Trump and Erdogan meet in person on November 13, or perhaps sooner, there will exist some common ground to be found. But the costs of maintaining their current deal or even striking a new one could be high.
American isolationism may jive with Turkish expansionism, but neither has the backing of Washington, and the latter may come with a steep economic price. Even if Trump and Erdogan are not, the U.S. and Turkey are at odds.
And as for NATO…
The current situation in Syria comes at a cost to NATO, at the very least in terms of the credibility of the alliance. The two most powerful allies militarily within NATO are clashing diplomatically. And according to western media reports, their troops nearly fired on one another within Syria.
One ally is carrying an out an operation that does not have the backing of the rest of the alliance. The other, which so happens to be the world’s largest military power, is fighting with itself over whether to stay involved in Syria at all. Clearly NATO lacks cohesion.
Likewise, NATO lacks decisiveness on Turkey’s role and membership in the alliance. Are Ankara’s interests reconcilable with those of the rest of the alliance?
Also, with various hostile militaries and militant groups in Syria, miscalculations could lead to larger confrontations. Previously, Turkish forces shot down a Russian jet flying over Turkey’s border with Syria. In case another such confrontation would occur, how would the alliance respond? Would NATO be drawn in or would Turkey defend itself on its own?
Turkey’s military operation in Syria leaves more questions than answers.