On Wednesday, President Erdoğan will be in Washington. In the past, Turkish diplomacy did its best for such high-level visits to underline the importance of the relationship. Aware of the respect the US pays to the separation of powers, it set up meetings with members of the Congress. It also tried to ensure positive media coverage. When Turkish-American relations were on the right track this last task proved a difficult one because the US is a global power, has its own loaded agenda and people pay little attention to visits by foreign leaders unless there is something out of the ordinary.
Unfortunately, President Erdoğan’s last visit to Washington in May 2017 received negative media coverage as a result of the brawl between protesters and his security team in front of the Turkish Embassy. Since then, the downturn continues.[i]
This time, the Trump administration, the Congress and the media will focus on the visit because the relations between the two countries are at an all-time low and more confrontational than ever with only a few feeble voices saying that pushing Turkey irreversibly towards Russia will be a strategic mistake. Moreover, despite his twists and turns, Turkey’s only friend in an increasingly polarized Washington seems to be President Trump and he is a leader in trouble. So, the possibility of Democrats and Republicans working together to sanction Turkey cannot be discarded.
In Washington, President Erdoğan will be met with a lot of criticism, and above all the question “where is Turkey heading?” While visits to Washington are rare and controversial, meetings with President Putin are now part of our diplomatic routine. Is the problem the distance between Ankara and Washington? Yes and no. Of course, Turkey and Russia are neighbors across the Black Sea but clearly distance is only part of the problem.
The first challenge in Washington will be keeping up appearances during remarks to the media before and after the meeting at the White House. Because, President Trump sent a controversial, undiplomatic letter to his guest on October 9. And, although we ourselves have shown little regard for conventional diplomacy in recent years, President Erdoğan has promised to return it to sender. Thus, officials of the two sides must have tried to find a way to avoid a public relations setback. With criticism of his Syria policy and the impeachment inquiry in the background, Mr. Trump will be reluctant to concede too much to his guest but surprises cannot be excluded.
The meeting between the two Presidents cannot possibly allow every item on the Turkish-US agenda to be discussed meaningfully because the list of problems is too long; President Trump’s span of attention is short; and, bilateral meetings with the US presidents never last for hours and hours.
So, Syria, the prospect of sanctions against Turkey, Ankara’s relations with Russia and Iran will top the agenda.
In recent days, the Turkish President sending a message to Washington before his visit expressed his dissatisfaction with the implementation of the joint statement issued at the end of Vice President Pence’s visit and the “memorandum of understanding” concluded with President Putin in Sochi. He must also be concerned about reports that the US will not only keep Syria’s oil, but keep it together with the YPG.
Will Mr. Trump listen to such concerns or simply say that Turkey has got its safe zone and that is the end of it? Will he and President Erdoğan review the dismal state of our military cooperation? American defense officials are constantly expressing their disappointment over the “betrayal of their ally YPG”, to the disappointment of their Turkish allies. Interestingly, the operation against ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was launched not from close by İncirlik airbase but from Arbil in Iraq.
Mr. Trump will surely raise Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400s and say that moving closer to Moscow will fundamentally alter Ankara’s relations with the West including NATO. He has always been strongly critical of Washington’s NATO allies for not spending enough on defense and here is Turkey paying 2.5 billion dollars for Russian missiles.
Yesterday, speaking to CBS News, US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said, “If Turkey does not get rid of the S-400, then probably the sanctions will be passed in Congress in accordance with the CAATSA law, with the overwhelming support of both parties, and Turkey will feel the consequences of these sanctions. We clearly told President Erdogan that there is no place for the S-400s in NATO or for significant purchases of Russian weapons. President Trump will tell him [Erdogan] that very clearly when he arrives here in Washington.”
Mr. O’Brian also mentioned the importance of Turkey’s geopolitical role and its control of the Straits for NATO allies, particularly Bulgaria and Romania which are Black Sea states and the undesirability of losing Turkey. In other words, with Turkey’s democratic decline is now accepted as a fact but its geostrategic location still matters. Indeed, many in the Trump administration may say, “we have cozy relationships with some other Middle East countries regardless of how they are governed, why not with Turkey so long as Ankara behaves?” The problem is, the regime change project in Syria, despite differences regarding the final outcome, had brought Ankara and Washington seemingly closer to one another. However, now that the project has failed, interests are diverging.
Mr. Trump may also take the occasion to slam the JCPOA once again and ask Mr. Erdoğan to join the anti-Iran block his administration is trying to forge and restore Ankara’s relations with Israel and the Gulf states. The discussion over Iran may give the US President an opportunity to give his guest a message on whatever nuclear aspirations he believes Turkey may have. President Erdoğan may respond with his own criticism of Mr. Obama but would stop short of raising any hope of cooperation against Iran.
For obvious reasons, the two leaders will avoid any discussion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It is only to be expected that President Erdoğan will meet with some congressmen and senators in Washington including his critics. Because meeting only with a few remaining “friends of Turkey” will not help change the hostile atmosphere on the Capitol. On Syria, US lawmakers and Mr. Erdoğan may have a tough exchange. While the former may raise allegations of abuses against civilian population by the Syrian militia embedded in operation Peace Spring, the latter may ask how the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) hailed as a coalition of Arabs and Kurds until Turkey’s incursion suddenly turned into “Kurdish fighters”. Here, the key to avoiding a walk-out will be strict adherence to diplomatic language. President Erdoğan and his hosts may not agree on anything but burning all bridges should not be an option for either side.
To conclude, the visit will not change the current picture. The maximum it can achieve can be a respite for damage control for the uneasy alliance. The question is “for how long?”
Ali Tuygan, Ambassador (Ret’d) and former Undersecretary of the Turkish Foreign Ministry. The article is also published on his blog.