Erdoğan Discovers Personality Doesn’t Trump Geopolitics

Turkey hoped Donald Trump would be less supportive of the Kurds than Barack Obama. It doesn’t look like it.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey speaks with his Ukrainian counterpart, Petro Poroshenko, in Kiev, March 20, 2015
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey speaks with his Ukrainian counterpart, Petro Poroshenko, in Kiev, March 20, 2015 (Press Service of the President of Ukraine/Palinchak Mikhail)

Turkey still hopes the United States might reconsider their support for Kurdish rebels in Syria, but it doesn’t look like Donald Trump will change this policy from his predecessor, Barack Obama.

If anything, the new president has doubled down, approving the delivery of more arms to Kurds who do battle with the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

The Syrian Democratic Forces — a Kurdish-dominated, secular opposition group — recently wrestled control of the Tabqa Dam, Syria’s largest, from the caliphate. They are now less than fifty kilometers west of its capital, Raqqa.

The United States and other Western countries count on the Kurds to chase the Islamists out of Syria.

But Turkey fears that would enable them to proclaim a Kurdish republic on its southern frontier. The existence of an independent Kurdistan could then convince Turkey’s own Kurdish minority to secede, or at least demand autonomy.

Sensitive

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan censured the Americans this week for arming what he considers an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a militant group in Turkey that its NATO allies recognize as a terrorist organization.

“These are developments that are in contradiction to our strategic relations with the United States,” the Turkish leader told a news conference in Ankara.

But he also portrayed the move as a relic of the Obama Administration’s Middle East policy:

The United States is still going through a transition period and we have to be more careful and sensitive.

Stark differences

If Erdoğan believes he can reach an accord with Trump because he has personally more in common with this president than the last, he is likely mistaken.

Adam Garfinkle, a Middle East expert, writes in The American Interest that strongmen types tend to like each other because they think they can sit down together and clear away all the niceties to make a deal and get on with it.

But no face-to-face, down-and-dirty bout of dealmaking can clear away the stark differences of interests in this case.

Defeating the Islamic State is the American priority, not Turkey’s. Its overriding strategic concern must always be Kurdish nationalism. Kurds make up a fifth of Turkey’s population. Losing them, and the lands they live on, would be the country’s biggest territorial setback since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

Americans in the middle

Erdoğan can hardly blame Trump for this troubles. He himself exacerbated communal tensions last year in order to win an election. An underreported civil war has since raged in Turkey’s southeast.

But it was American support that conspired with the indifference of Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, to give the Kurds de facto autonomy across swatches of northern Syria, close to Turkey’s border.

Erdoğan has sent troops into Syria to prevent the Kurds from linking up their territories east and west of the Euphrates River.

As recently as two weeks ago, Turkey carried out airstrikes against Kurdish fighters in both Iraq and Syria.

The Americans warned Turkey at the time it could not pursue its fight against the PKK “at the expense of our common fight against terrorists that threaten us all.”

The Guardian reports that American armored vehicles were deployed along the Syrian-Turkish border to create a buffer zone between the Turks to the north and Kurdish forces to the south.

Pact with Russia

Complicating matters further is Russia, which supports the Kurds in order to divert Turkey’s attention away from the war in Syria, where it supports Assad.

The Council on Foreign Relations’ Aaron Stein writes that Russia has been receptive to Kurdish participation in Syrian peace talks and signaled support for a decentralized Syria, provided Assad can remain in power.

Trump’s view appears to align with Russia’s on this. Unlike Obama, he is not adamant Assad must go.

An American-Russian pact about the future of Syria would isolate the Turks further.

Stein points out that Erdoğan and his party have already deployed anti-Westernism to shore up their popularity. American support for Kurdish autonomy in Syria, and a deal with Russia that leaves Assad in place, could only confirm Turkish suspicions that the West no longer has its interests at heart.

Alternatives include abandoning the Kurds, which could prolong the fight against the Islamic State; deescalating the war against the Islamic State altogether; or stepping up direct American involvement. Neither is an attractive option for Trump.

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