Trump in Turkey: An Opportunity For Rapprochement or Mere Window Dressing?

Donald Trump is set to visit Turkey in July of this year in the midst of a series of protracted disputes between the two NATO partners. Among the various issues of contention between Ankara and Washington include:

–America’s threat to sanction Turkey for purchasing Russia’s S-400 missile defence systems

–America’s withdrawal of Turkey from elements of the F-35 programme in spite of the fact that the programme itself is dependant on Turkey and has been since its inception

–America’s sustained threat not to deliver the F-35 jets that Turkey has already ordered

–The continued US alliance with the YPG/PKK terror group in north-eastern Syria

–Lack of coordination over Donald Trump’s announced phased withdrawal of US troops from Syria

–Turkey’s consistent and strongly worded support for Iran in spite of the US withdrawing the sanctions waiver from Turkey (along with China, India, South Korea, Japan, Italy and Greece)

–Internal pressures on pro-Turkey elements in Washington from domestic pressure groups including the Israel lobby

These factors have notably strained Turkey-US relations after a very brief rapprochement beginning in late 2018. In particular, since Turkey’s local elections on the 31st of March, the US has become ever more brazen in its threatening language deployed against Turkey. This has been the case in spite of the history of a deeply close and productive bilateral partnership throughout the 20th century.

Donald Trump has already held multiple meetings with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan but all of them have either been in Washington or else at multilateral events including both G20 and NATO summits. Although the location of meetings between heads of state is often more symbolic than substantive, Donald Trump has demonstrated time and again that for him, style is as important as substance.

This for example is why Trump has insisted on finalising a new trade deal with China at a grand summit between himself and Xi Jinping. It is also why even before the Korean peace process is anywhere near completion Trump has spoken in highly positive terms about hosting Kim Jong-un on US soil, something that would be a major historic first for any DPRK leader.

Using the same logic, by calling on President Erdoğan in Turkey, Trump may well believe that the occasion of his first presidential visit to Turkey might be the right time to at least publicly reach an understanding about reviving a deeply important bilateral partnership. In the best case scenario, the two countries with the largest armies in NATO might also reach some concrete agreements regarding Syria, the F-35s and the S-400s.

For Turkey, there exists a clear impetus to resolve all outstanding issues with Washington. Insofar as this is the case, Turkey has proposed setting up a bilateral working group to further discuss the S-400 question. This comes after Turkey made a generous agreement with the US that no Russian personnel would be present in Turkey at any time to operate the S-400s once they are delivered later this year.

All of this means that under the right circumstances, logic could prevail and this positive outcome would only be aided by the fact that Donald Trump is sure to enjoy first class Turkish hospitality on a personal level.

That being said there are major obstacles to such a win-win outcome. There have been multiple instances in the past of Trump either meeting with or speaking over the phone with fellow world leaders only for the agreements made on a one-on-one basis to be reserved by other characters in the White House. This is particularly true in respect of US National Security Advisor John Bolton who has made it something of a personal habit to roll back bilateral progress made between Trump and a fellow head of state.

Specifically, earlier this year President Erdoğan dramatically refused to meet with Bolton in Ankara after the American official made disparaging comments about Turkey – remarks which parroted the dangerous narrative of the YPG/PKK terror organisation.

It is therefore anyone’s guess whether the warm words that will surely be passed between Erdoğan and Trump will result in a meaningful and sustainable agreement regarding the major areas of bilateral contention between the two states. That being said, the fact that the Trump visit is going ahead is a step in the right direction. All that remains to be seen is the size of the step.

Comments are closed.