Prior to his meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House on November 13, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan explained that the purpose of his visit was to “start a new era over common security issues” with the United States. “We are in agreement with Trump to solve problems and develop our ties despite the foggy weather in our relations,” he told a news conference in Ankara, the capital of Turkey.
Erdogan’s reference to “foggy weather” was an understatement. Turkish-American relations have been in a tailspin for quite a while. And since Turkey has been one of the United States’ key allies in the Middle East for decades, this is no small matter.
The downward spiral in their bilateral relations took a turn for the worse last month when Trump threatened to impose tough economic sanctions on Turkey — the sole Muslim member of the Western NATO military alliance — after its invasion of northeastern Syria on October 9.
Trump issued this threat several months after his administration removed Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet program, to which several nations, including Israel, belong. The United States banned Turkey from manufacturing or buying the advanced aircraft after it took delivery of the Russian-made S-400 anti-aircraft missile system this past July and September.
But even before this issue surfaced, Turkey’s image in the United States had been sullied by Erdogan’s harsh crackdown following a failed coup in the summer of 2016 during which he barely escaped with his life.
Since then, 150,000 workers have been purged from the civil service, thousands of officers in the armed forces have been sacked, hundreds of journalists and opposition members of parliament have been detained and arrested, newspapers and magazines have been summarily closed, websites have been blocked, and freedom of movement, assembly and association have been severely restricted, according to a U.S. State Department human rights report.
Erdogan resorted to these drastic measures to weaken his opponents and consolidate his Islamist regime.
Since Turkey’s invasion of Syria, its relations with the United States have further deteriorated. Last month, in a tangible expression of its disgust with Erdogan’s leadership, the U.S. Congress passed three bipartisan resolutions considered hostile by the Turkish government.
By a vote of 354-60, the House of Representatives condemned Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria, which Trump implicitly greenlighted during a telephone conversation with Erdogan on October 6. Later that month, by a margin of 403-16, the House passed another resolution calling for sanctions to be imposed on Turkish officials who played a role in its planning.
In addition, much to Turkey’s anger, the House passed a non-binding resolution recognizing the killings of 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman-Turkish forces in 1915 as a genocide.
On the eve of Erdogan’s visit to Washington, his second since 2017, Democrats in the House urged Trump to cancel it altogether. Much to Turkey’s disappointment, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell released a deeply ambivalent statement on the state of U.S. relations with Turkey. While McConnell voiced the hope that Trump’s upcoming meeting with Erdogan would be helpful in improving bilateral relations, he admitted he shared “my colleagues’ uneasiness at seeing President Erdogan honored at the White House.”
Despite the sour mood on Capitol Hill, Trump greeted Erdogan warmly and accentuated the positive.
“We’ve been friends for a long time,” he said, referring to the United States’ historic relationship with Turkey, which anchors NATO’s eastern flank. “I’m a big fan of the president.”
By way of reciprocation, Erdogan described Trump as “my dear friend.”
At a joint news conference, Trump called their encounter “productive,” but acknowledged that Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400 missile defence system — which is due to become operational next April — is a “very serious challenge for us and we are talking about it constantly.”
Washington fears that the S-400, if aligned with the F-35, could compromise U.S. security. Beyond that issue, the Trump administration is concerned that Turkey — the only NATO state that purchases Russian weapons — is expanding relations with Russia at the expense of its partnership with the United States.
Recognizing the importance of this dispute, Trump and Erdogan said they would try to resolve it through future discussions between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. “I project that we will work something out,” said Trump confidently.
Erdogan said the current impasse could be broken through dialogue. “We are in agreement to further Turkish-American ties on a healthy ground. We have agreed to open a new page in our relationship.”
Easier said than done.
Apart from its objection to Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 system from Russia, the United States and Turkey are at odds over the Kurds in Syria.
Erdogan has asked Trump to sever relations with the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish umbrella group which, until Turkey’s invasion, controlled an autonomous strip of territory south of the Turkish border. Erdogan is particularly opposed to the YPG, a Kurdish militia affiliated with the Syrian Democratic Forces and linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which Turkey considers a terrorist organization.
Trump effectively abandoned the Kurds during Turkey’s invasion of Syria. But since the Kurds have been valuable allies in the U.S. military campaign to eradicate Islamic State, Trump has no intention of dropping the Syrian Democratic Forces and affiliates like the YPG just to satisfy Erdogan.
During his visit to Washington, Erdogan, nevertheless, tried to drive a wedge between the Kurds and the United States by assuring Trump that Turkey is its best partner in the battle against Islamic State. As he put it, “Turkey and the United States can work together to finish Islamic State and bring peace to Syria. The most reliable U.S. partner in the region to do this is Turkey.”
Aside from the Kurds, the United States and Turkey disagree over the fate of Fetullah Gulen, an influential Turkish cleric living in exile Pennsylvania. Erdogan and Gulen were former allies but are now bitter enemies. Gulen’s global Service movement once supported Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, but nowadays Erdogan accuses Gulen and his supporters of plotting against him, of treason and terrorism, and of attempting to “destroy” Turkey’s “constitutional order.”
Turkey has demanded Gulen’s extradition, but Washington has resisted on the grounds that Turkish evidence against him is weak.
Some American politicians are antagonistic to Turkey for a number of other reasons.
In 2003, as the United States prepared for war with Iraq, Turkey’s parliament refused to allow U.S. troops to use Turkish territory as an invasion route.
After the eruption of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Turkey allowed jihadis from around the world to slip into Syria to join Islamic State.
More recently, Turkey has been accused of turning a blind eye to a state-owned bank that has cooperated with Iran to evade U.S. economic sanctions.