Erdogan and Trump reaffirm strategic partnership

Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Recep Tayyip Erdogan

:: Amid bilateral tensions over various issues, US President Trump and Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke by phone on Saturday and according to the announcement made by the Turkish presidential office, they agreed to promote regional stability and to boost bilateral ties.

The two leaders also agreed to meet in New York during the UN General Assembly due this month.

The two countries are experiencing difficult relations at present, marked especially by Washington’s support for the Syrian Kurdish militia, YPG, as a local partner in the battle against Daesh; Ankara views YPG as a terrorist group.

Another disagreement between Turkey and the US pertains to the requested extradition of Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is considered by Turkey as the mastermind behind last year’s failed coup attempt.

Erdogan recently slammed the US over an indictment of Turkey’s former Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan on charges that he had conspired to help Iran violate US sanctions by illegally transferring hundreds of millions of dollars.

Erdogan sees the indictment as a mistake and as a political move against Turkey. Claiming that Caglayan had not engaged in any wrongdoing, Erdogan told reporters as he was departing for Kazakhstan, “There are bad smells coming from behind this.”

“I hope we’ll get a chance to discuss this issue in the United States. You may be a big nation, but being a just nation is something else. Being a just nation requires the legal system to work fairly,” he said.

In addition to that, a US Senate committee on Thursday approved a measure to block the US government from supporting weapons sales to security forces protecting Erdogan. The move was in response to the violence against protesters that was carried out by Erdogan’s bodyguards during his visit to Washington this spring. A total of 19 people, including 15 Turkish security officials, have been indicted and this further complicates bilateral ties.

Experts note that these key issues will top the agenda and will surely be raised by Erdogan during his upcoming meeting with Trump.

Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Ankara office director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, thinks that the alliance between the two countries has been reduced to transactional cooperation based on mutual distrust and grievances.

Even so, for Unluhisarcikli, there are several issues on which the two countries have mutual interests and other issues where they need to avoid collusion.

“At this point, removing the Al-Qaeda presence in Syria’s Idlib, the planned independence referendum in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) scheduled for Sept. 25, how to meet Turkey’s need to train new F16 pilots to replace those that were removed from military service after the coup attempt will be the top issues on the agenda,” he told Arab News.

Concerning the controversial items on the bilateral meeting agenda, Unluhisarcikli said, “Erdogan holds the ‘Washington elite’ responsible for these developments and spares President Trump from criticism as he still hopes to build a constructive relationship with the current US administration.”

According to Ahmet K. Han, an international relations professor at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University, this visit will not see a drastic transformation in bilateral ties but it has certain important political purposes from the Turkish side.

“Turkey now, more than ever, has to maintain a balance in its foreign policy, including its relations with the United States, as its previous ambition to develop an autonomous foreign policy proved to be unsustainable — at least at the level aspired to by her decision makers,” Han told Arab News.

“Turkey’s intention is to design a renewed multi-dimensional relationship inside the Beltway. Also, internationally, it tries to avoid becoming isolated on the global stage.”

For these purposes, Han noted, Ankara now wants to establish bipartisan contacts with key individuals in Washington, including some outside the administration.

“Erdogan also aims to develop a separate, preferably a tightly circled one-on-one relationship, with Trump which will allow Turkey to bypass some influential figures within the administration, who the Turkish side sees as categorically acting against Turkish interests and restricting Trump by their foreign policy reflexes,” he said.

Experts argue that Turkey will use this month’s UN meeting as an opportunity to raise the issue of the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar where about 270,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled violence directed at them. Turkey recently extended a helping hand to the region by delivering 1,000 tons of aid for 100,000 families.

Han said that Ankara feels the UN is an adequate platform to advertise its humanitarian and “conscientious” foreign policy, augmenting its international reputation and increasing the legitimacy of its interests elsewhere, especially in Syria.

“With a claim to be a world leader, Erdogan will try and make use of this UN meeting to turn Turkey’s sensitivity about the Rohingya Muslims into a public opinion victory,” Han said.

Han also noted that frequent contacts between Trump and Erdogan also meant an effort by Turkey to anticipate the legal process in the US over contentious issues between the two countries — especially the Gulen case, Caglayan indictment and the situation with Erdogan’s security detail — with an expected concern on managing these issues.

“The Turkish approach is dominated by a strong conviction that these processes in the US are driven by political concerns, aiming to manipulate Turkey’s domestic politics, largely predicated on the repudiation of the American argument on judicial independence.”

Erdogan and Trump met earlier on May 16 at the White House and ended with joint commitments to cooperate on counterterrorism efforts. The meeting failed to deliver concrete outcomes concerning the ongoing controversies that continue to divide the two countries. Hopes are pinned on this coming meeting.

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