Trump and Erdogan: How long will the honeymoon last?

Trump and Erdogan: How long will the honeymoon last?
6 min read
08 Feb, 2017
Comment: Eradicating Islamic State is apparently one of Trump's priorities, but if this means cooperation with the Syrian Kurds, relations with Turkey may suffer as a result, writes Yvo Fitzherbert.
Erdogan prides himself on being a voice for the Muslim world [Andalou]

When Donald Trump signed the executive order banning nationals from seven majority-Muslim countries last week, many people wondered how Turkey's President, Recep Tayyıp Erdogan, would respond.

Protests flared across America, and many governments the world over have criticised the ban for its blatant Islamophobia. However, a number of Middle Eastern governments have been notably silent on the issue, with Erdogan and his ruling AKP government among them.

In the immediate aftermath of Trump's election victory in November, Erdogan and his supporters could hardly contain their delight. Pro-government circles believed Trump's election could lead to a re-evaluation of Turkish-American relations, which had soured under Obama's administration.

President Erdogan congratulated President Trump, suggesting he ought to visit Turkey "as soon as possible". After Trump refused to answer a question from a CNN journalist during a press conference, accusing the news organisation of producing "fake news", Erdogan applauded him for putting the journalist in his place.

However, Trump's attempts to ban entry to nationals of several majority-Muslim nations places question marks over the potential longevity of such an alliance.

Trump's attempts to ban entry to nationals of several majority-Muslim nations places question marks over the potential longevity of such an alliance

Erdogan, who prides himself on being a voice for the Muslim world and a protector of Sunni Muslims, told reporters last week that "some [of Trump's] language concerning the Middle East is reaching our ear, and it is disturbing."

During Theresa May's visit to Ankara, Turkey's Prime Minister had criticized the executive order as short-sighted. "Regional issues cannot be solved by closing the doors on people," Binali Yıldırım said during a press conference with Theresa May, "You can build a wall. But it's not a solution. That wall will come down like the Berlin Wall."

  Read More: CIA chief to discuss future of US-Turkey relations

And Nurman Kurtulmus, the deputy prime minister, went further when he said: "I believe that Islamophobia, which has been on the rise in the West, anti-migrant sentiment and xenophobia have unfortunately contributed to this decision."

However, despite such comments, Ankara has yet to condemn the now temporarily suspended Muslim ban outright, with Erdogan in particular remaining silent. Many pro-government columnists have cautioned against impetuous criticism of Trump.

Hilal Kaplan, a Daily Sabah journalist, argued that the "Muslim ban" did not matter as much as defeating Trump's liberal opponents, and that Obama was responsible for the instability across the Middle East. In a previous article, Kaplan likened the forces trying to undermine Trump to the attempted coup against Erdogan last year.

So, why have pro-government circles in Turkey put so much faith in President Trump? The souring of US-Turkish relations over the latter half of Obama's administration is two-fold: Firstly, the US has so far refused to extradite Fethullah Gulen to Turkey as Ankara has requested. Secondly, Obama's clear support for the PYD, the Syrian Kurdish party that retains links to the PKK, in the fight against IS has angered Turkey.

Like Erdogan, Trump is a populist who cares little for reaching out to swathes of the population who don't support him

In many ways Ankara's support for Trump rests on distrust of Hilary Clinton, who was a vocal supporter of the Syrian Kurds and considered too much of the same ilk as Obama to rescue US-Turkish relations. Some suspect that Clinton's campaign received funds from supposed supporters of Fethullah Gulen, and Ankara feared that a Clinton administration would be a direct continuation of the Obama administration.

This goes some way to explaining the appreciation for Trump. Like Erdogan, Trump is a populist who cares little for reaching out to swathes of the population who don't support him. Trump's pledge to end the habit of using American military means to "impose liberal and democratic values" around the world will also please Erdogan.

They both share a certain affinity in that they represent populism battling against the global liberal order. Trump's Islamophobia may be a worry to Ankara, but the potential common ground that could be fostered between the two leaders appears to be holding precedent in pro-government circles.

While the US refusal to extradite Fethullah Gulen from the US represents a bone of contention with Ankara, it is Trump's future Syria strategy which will seal the fate of Trump's relationship with his Turkish counterpart.

Trump's Islamophobia may be a worry to Ankara, but the potential for fostering common ground between the two leaders appears to be holding precedent

Defeating the YPG - the Syrian Kurdish forces who retain links with the PKK - are the primary reason Turkey launched their very own Syrian campaign - operation Euphrates Shield – last August. However, with the YPG ready to launch an offensive on Raqqa, arming the Syrian Kurds appears to be the only viable option for a US administration set on swiftly defeating IS in Syria.

This week, Erdogan and Trump reportedly had a 45-minute phone conversation, in which Trump reiterated support to Turkey as a strategic partner, and welcomed Turkey's contributions to the campaign against IS.

On Thursday, the CIA's director, Mike Pompeo, is due to visit Turkey in his first overseas visit to discuss security matters, including the sensitive topic of Turkey's extradition request for US-based cleric, Fethullah Gulen, as well as the issue of US support for Syrian Kurdish forces.

While Trump has yet to clearly articulate his strategy in Syria, he has stated that defeating IS is a priority. Such an approach, with a focus on a military victory over the potential complications that such hastiness could bring, is likely to increase cooperation with their Kurdish partners on the ground.

With the Euphrates Shield operation riddled with shortcomings and struggling to defeat IS in the town of al-Bab, a town considerably smaller than Raqqa, it is clear that Ankara has little leverage with the Trump administration. In contrast, the Syrian Kurds are ready to launch an offensive on Raqqa, and thus represent the surest way to fulfil Trump's pledge to prioritise the fight against the Islamic State.

In a recent article penned by the pro-government columnist, Ilnur Cevik argued that Theresa May's visit to Ankara underlined the growing importance of Turkey on the global scene. Having built strong ties with Russia, Cevik believes Trump will be inclined to work with Ankara more fully as the EU and NATO unravel into the unknown.

While a global shift towards popularism may be taking place, it is hard to imagine such ideological common ground remaining intact if Trump sticks to his campaign pledge to prioritise the fight against IS. With Ankara's Syrian operation bogged down in al-Bab, Trump's prioritisation against "radical Islam" means Ankara has left Trump with little choice but to arm the Syrian Kurds.


Yvo Fitzherbert is a freelance journalist based in Turkey. He has written on Kurdish politics, the Syrian war and the refugee crisis for a variety of Turkish and English publications. Follow him on Twitter: @yvofitz

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.