How the US-Turkey relations will change during the Trump presidency

With his vitriolic and often self-contradictory campaign rhetoric, newly elected President Trump may have sent tremors to many capitals around the world but not to Ankara. Quite on the contrary, a sense of optimism appeared to stem from the Turkish leadership which wasted no time in congratulating the new President, hoping that under his presidency trust in the Turkish-American relations will be restored. Expectedly, however, this optimism has been rather cautious mirroring the ambiguity of the Trump figure itself. Of course, the extent to which Turkish-American disagreements of the Obama term will be reconciled remains unclear, but the lines underneath will attempt to draw some early observations.

For the most part, Turkish-American relations have been a good example of mutual cooperation and common interests with only few cases of tension. Having joined NATO in 1952, Turkey has been among the founding members of the Baghdad Pact – the American-inspired eastward expansion of NATO – and an endorser of the 1957 Eisenhower Doctrine. As such, throughout the Cold War it has been considered as a vital geopolitical ally and a bulwark against the spread of communism from all the American administrations. For its loyalty, Turkey has been rewarded with a grandiose assistance in the sense of economic aid and arms, fact that would make the adherents of rentier state theory of international relations proud.

Yet, despite the longevity of cordial relations, strains arose in 2003 when the Turkish parliament did not grant permission to the American army to use the Turkish soil in the Iraq conflict. Although relations have been normalized since then, tensions re-surfaced during the ongoing Syrian civil war where the two countries have developed essentially conflicting postures. As of late August 2016, Turkey unilaterally invaded Syria in order to create a safe zone within the Syrian territory which will not only keep ISIS away from the Turkish borders but it will also, probably more importantly for Ankara, contain the Kurdish militias of Syria and Iraq. Washington does not approve the Turkish initiative, while it continues to openly support YPG – the militant part of PYD – in order to curb ISIS. On top of that, the problematic state of Turkish-American relations has been further deteriorated after the 15th July failed coup attempt in Turkey, as Ankara’s demands for the extradition of Fethullah Gülen, the coup’s alleged instigator, were not bowed by the American leadership.

Against such an uneasy environment, for both Turkey and the US, the election of Trump could indicate a chance towards reconciliation. To do so, the two countries have to find a modus vivendi in the three key issues: which policy to be followed in Syria and Iraq, the role of YPG and the extradition of Fethullah Gülen.

Upon the situation in Syria, defeating ISIS has been the overarching priority in Trump’s campaign proclamations, while he is reported to have said that regime change comes second to the containment of the terrorist group. Besides, for the sake of confronting ISIS, Trump has numerous times connoted that cooperation with Russia is probable and that Turkey could be one of spearheads of any military campaign. The problem here lays on the fact that Trump has never gone a step further than his magniloquent but vague statements. He has not specified what this intensification of war on ISIS will entail, but also, which is the preferred Syrian political future as soon as ISIS is defeated. In turn, such a simplistic approach in a highly complex situation may trigger further backlash in the Turkish-American relations. In a more optimistic fashion, combating ISIS may actualize a common front in Syria and Iraq – between the U.S, Russia and Turkey. But this unity will most probably be temporary, as their diametrically different agendas will inevitably become a source of contention when ISIS is gone.

Equally important for the Turkish-American relationship, will be the stance the new president will keep in regards to the Kurds. In statements made before the elections, the president elect had repeatedly expressed the opinion that the U.S should keep on arming the Kurds in Syria and Iraq. At the same time, as Ragip Soylu – Daily Sabah’s correspondent – reports, “American support for the YPG would be reviewed if there is any operational connection with the PKK” according to Trump’s foreign policy adviser. The ambiguity of all these notwithstanding and however loose the American-Kurdish alliance may be, it is highly improbable that Washington will substitute the Kurds for another group insofar they remain the most reliable partners in the ground.

Last but not least, whether US and Turkey will move towards re-establishing good relations will also depend on the Fethullah Gülen question. It may be for internal consumption and further solidification of AKP, but for Erdoğan, cracking down on the alleged mastermind of the 15th July events has been elevated as a top priority. In this vein, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım has lately called on Donald Trump to extradite the Pennsylvania-based cleric appealing for the new President’s respect on Turkey’s “sensitivities concerning the fight against terrorism“. Whether Trump will cede on Ankara’s calls but also the growing pressure that himself faces from conservatives’ inner circles, remains to be seen.

All things considered, the aforementioned observations could be proven just paper exercises when the new President assumes its post. While the three aforementioned issues will concern most of the bilateral talks between the two countries, the fate of Turkish-American relations will also be affected by two additional factors: the composition of the new cabinet and the extent to which the new American government will, or most probably will not, prioritize “democracy and rule of law issues in foreign lands“.

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