Foreign Policy

Turkey’s Erdoğan and Trump: Kindred spirits, divergent agendas


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will meet President Trump in the White House on Tuesday, May 16. Although the two countries are NATO allies since 1952, the relationship has never been a fully harmonious one, requiring compromises and tolerance for behavior the other party opposed, or at least did not support (for example, the invasion of Cyprus in 1974 by Turkey; the invasion of Iraq in 2003 by the U.S.).  

To maintain good relations, the two leaders will have to swallow some personal pride and admit that the benefits each country derives from a close partnership outweigh the resentment generated by failing to realize their expectations.  

Both leaders are proud of their electoral victories, seeing in them a repudiation of establishment elites and a vindication of their populist nationalism tactics. If they can accept the realities of the constraints on their freedom of action by their respective nation’s governance structures and geostrategic situation, they should be able to build a mutually respectful relationship that benefits each country’s national security interests.

Defining the Enemy

Regarding “terrorists,” the U.S. and Turkey do not see eye-to-eye. The recent announcement that the U.S. would supply the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which dominates the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), with weapons to continue their assault against the ISIS “capital” of Raqqa did not go down well with the Turkish Government, as expected.  

{mosads}The Turkish Government considers the YPG to be an integral part of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), which both the U.S. and Turkey designate a terrorist organization. The U.S. considers the YPG to be a separate organization, and as an effective fighting force against ISIS, too valuable an operational ally to exclude from the fight against ISIS. Since a Turkish airstrike on YPG forces in late April, U.S. troops reportedly are patrolling with YPG forces to preclude another strike by the Turks.


After some sabre rattling, the Turks made clear it would not attack U.S. forces present with YPG forces. That voices in the Turkish government would even hint that Turkish forces might risk killing U.S. personnel in order to attack YPG forces shows the depth of Turkish hostility to the YPG and PKK who they see posing an existential threat to Turkey.

The U.S. supports Turkey against the PKK, but currently considers ISIS the greater threat to U.S. national security, in part because the PKK does not seek to impose its ideology globally but seeks a unified independent homeland for all Kurds. For the U.S., the PKK is an insurgency that uses terrorist tactics in pursuit of its nationalist goal that does not present a threat beyond the countries that include traditional Kurdish regions, unlike ISIS operates globally, inspiring or directing terrorist attacks in numerous countries far from the Middle East.

In a similar way, the U.S. disappoints Turkish expectations in not responding positively to Turkey’s request for the extradition of Sufi Muslim religious leader Fethullah Gülen, who they assert directed the coup attempt from his self-imposed exile in Saylorsburg, PA. The visit of Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag on May 8 was widely believed to be another effort by Turkey to secure the extradition of Gülen, regardless of the reportedly weak evidence submitted for the extradition request.  

On BBC radio news on Wednesday, May 10, Egeman Bağiş noted that the U.S. has failed to honor Turkey’s repeated requests to extradite Fethullah Gülen and described this failure as evidence that the U.S. is not committed to fighting terrorism as “Gülen is known by everyone in Turkey to have directed the coup attempt” in July 2016. With the departure of Mike Flynn from the White House, however, Turkey may have lost some influence in having the decision made not on the evidence but political calculations.

Flynn was paid by a Turkish ruling party affiliated businessman make the case for extraditing Gülen, to include placing a November 8, 2016 open letter in outlining the case for extradition. The letter borrows heavily from talking points the Turkish Presidency used previously.

The Obama administration had not acted on the extradition request, responding to the Turkish government that the Departments of Justice and of State would review the evidence presented and act accordingly pursuant to the extradition treaty between the U.S. and Turkey. Erdoğan saw this as a refusal to cooperate against a criminal terrorist, helping to sour further the already difficult relationship between his government and the Obama administration.

Will the election of Trump, the appointment of Sessions as attorney general, and the desire of some in the foreign policy community to placate Erdoğan as we provide more assistance to the YPG lead to Gülen’s extradition even if the evidence for such remains weak? Gülen’s supporters likely fear such an outcome, but it is hard to imagine that Sessions, even if he were convinced that political considerations trumped the law in this case, would acquiesce to such an action on the heels of the early termination of the FBI director.

For now, it looks like the non-extradition of Gülen will remain an irritant in relations.

The Way Forward

What then will form the basis of improved relations with our at-times difficult ally Turkey? First, enhanced and increased U.S. assistance against the PKK, without any public expressions of concern about the tactics the Turkish military uses in civilian areas of southeastern Turkey.  

Second, continued high-level consultations to preclude any surprises. Note that Tillerson visited Turkey in late March and McMasters (and reportedly Trump) received Turkey’s Chief of the General Staff, Intel Chief, and senior Presidential advisor/spokesperson last week — certainly the increased support for the YPG was previewed with them. Showing the Turks respect by avoiding surprising headlines will do much to smoothing relations in the face of divergent goals.  

Finally, Trump treats Erdoğan like a fellow winner, someone who deserves to be at the head table with the other winners. If Erdoğan can accept that his expectations cannot be realized because of the constraints of U.S. law and national security interests but that he will be treated as an equal and there will be no interference or even harsh commentary regarding his domestic policies, these two birds of a feather should flock together for the mutual benefit of their respective national security interests.  

Ed Stafford is a retired Foreign Service Officer whose last overseas assignment was to the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey (2011-2014).

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags Fethullah Gülen Gülen movement Kurdish–Turkish conflict Kurdistan Workers' Party Politics of Rojava Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Syrian civil war Trump Turkish involvement in the Syrian Civil War
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