Trump and the Turks

Evaluating American-Turkish relations in light of Trump’s Middle East visit and the diplomatic isolation of Qatar.

Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey and Donald Trump of the United States pose for photos in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, May 16, 2017
Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey and Donald Trump of the United States pose for photos in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, May 16, 2017 (Turkish Presidency)

As Donald Trump returns from his first international tour as American president, one thing that stands out is, as usual, the difference between his and Barack Obama’s approach to diplomacy. Whereas Obama’s first Mideast destinations were Turkey and Iraq, Trump’s were Saudi Arabia and Israel, a country Obama did not even visit until his second term in office.

Trump’s trip also included stops in Brussels, Sicily and the Vatican in Rome. Along with Saudi Arabia and Israel, these represent four of the five most significant allies of the United States within the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean region: Italy, Israel, the Saudis and the EU.

The fifth ally, which appears to have been snubbed, is Turkey. The Turks were not honored with a stop during Trump’s first trip to the region, as they were during Obama’s.

Turkey failing to make it onto Trump’s travel itinerary might seem to be of little significance, if it were not for the flurry of unpleasant events involving the Turks and Americans that have occured this same month.

First, there was the meeting of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Trump at the White House on May 16, which lasted a mere 22 minutes and was complicated by the announcement, less than a week before the meeting, that Trump would be approving a Pentagon plan to arm the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish militia.

That meeting was then marred also by a public brawl that occured in Washington on the day it was held, which pitted Erdoğan’s security detail against protestors who, according to the Turkish government, were supporters of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Later in the week, Turkish military planes repeatedly violated Greek airspace — a point of friction between two NATO countries occurring directly ahead of the NATO summit that Erdoğan and Trump attended in Brussels.

If this was not enough, the week also saw the Flynn/Trump/Comey affair dominate the news cycle — and the word “impeachment” bandied about in Congress for the first time — which followed the admission by Michael Flynn a week earlier that he had previously been on a Turkish payroll.

Meanwhile, Trump has used his trip in the Arab world to endorse the idea of forming an “Arab NATO”: an alliance between Saudi Arabia and Egypt that, unlike the real NATO, would exclude the other, comparatively liberal and democratic Sunni power in the region, Turkey.

Now, just a week after Trump’s return home, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have led a move to politically isolate Qatar, the country which is Turkey’s primary ally in the Gulf region.

The price of oil

The root of all this unpleasantness is America’s growing concern that, if energy prices continue to stay low for a sustained period, and if Turkey’s oil-exporting neighbors like Russia, Iran and the Gulf Arab states are weakened as a result, Turkey could become formidable enough within the region to risk cracking down on American allies — starting with the Kurds.

Turkey has thus far been relatively happy to work in a cooperative fashion with the Iraqi Kurdish groups, who are America’s primary Kurdish allies in the region. Turkey imports Iraqi Kurdish oil, has fought on the same side as the Iraqi Kurds against ISIS and uses its relationship with Iraqi Kurds to gain leverage over Iranian-allied Iraqi Shiite groups.

Regarding Kurds in Turkey and Syria, however, Turkey and the United States are in disagreement. Though America has already partially conceded the point on Kurds in Turkey — the United States continue to list the PKK as a terror organization — it has nevertheless been alarmed by the Turkish government’s treatment of opposition parties supported by many Kurds, notably the People’s Democratic Party (HDP).

In Syria, the conflicting interests of America and Turkey are even more explicit: America is now working in conjunction with the YPG, a group Ankara views as terrorists.

At this point, because Erdoğan seems to have consolidated his power domestically, with recent victories in the Turkish constitutional referendum in April, failed coup in July 2016 and general election of November 2015, he may now turn his sights increasingly to areas beyond or adjacent to Turkish borders, in Iraq, Syria and Turkey’s own Kurdish regions.

Thus, with Trump snubbing Turkey on his first foreign trip, and with the flurry of events involving Turkey and the United States that have surrounded the trip, it appears that the United States and Turkey may be in the process of aggressively haggling over the details of their alliance against shared rivals like ISIS, Al Qaeda, Bashar Assad and Hezbollah.

The twin issues they have to work out are how much of the burden against these Middle Eastern forces the Turks will bear and how tough the Turks will be with Kurdish groups, notably those in Syria.

The price of loyalty

Of course, we have no way of knowing how the details of these issues will be worked out or even whether the United States really will be willing to abandon the Kurdish militias to the Turks.

But we can guess.

Turkey seem more likely than not to accept the burden of fighting in Iraq and Syria and the United States more likely than not to abandon the Kurds in Syria and Turkey.

But (I will continue to guess) America and its allies will extract two more conditions in return for their abandonment of the Kurds: Turkish cooperation within both Cyprus and Gaza.

In Gaza, although Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu publicly apologized for the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident, Turkey has become a key ally of the Gazans almost by default. This has been the result of the Syrian Civil War (which alienated Hamas from Assad, leading Hamas’ formal leadership to move from Damascus to Qatar in 2012), the Egyptian coup in 2013 (in which Abdul Fatah Sisi overthrew and then outlawed Hamas’ Muslim Brotherhood allies) and finally the crash in oil and gas prices in 2015 (which has hurt the economy of Hamas’ newest host and benefactor, the royal family of the tiny state of Qatar).

Israel and the United States want not only that Turkey prevent another incident like the Mavi Marmara, but also that they tie Turkish and regional investment in Gaza to the condition that Hamas work to prevent a resumption of violence in the strip. An increase in fighting between Israelis and Gazans would, among other things, imperil the tacit Israeli-Arab alliance directed against Iran and ISIS; an alliance Trump’s visit has intended to solidify.

Israeli-Palestinian violence would also draw a gigantic amount of the world’s media attention, and would inevitably be blamed on Trump, showing his portrayal of himself as an unparalleled dealmaker to be yet another con.

Indeed, at the risk of being too cynical or conspiracy-minded, I would like to point out the possibly politicized pattern of the four main Israeli-Gaza battles that have occured since Hamas began to gain control of Gaza in 2006:

The first, Israel’s Operation Autumn Cloud, ended the day before midterm elections in the United States in 2006.

The second, Operation Cast Lead, ended two days before Barack Obama’s inauguration.

The third, Operation Pillar of Defense, began a week after the American general election in 2012.

And the fourth, Operation Protective Edge, ended two months before the 2014 midterms.

Whether or not this pattern was a coincidence, Trump and the Republicans obviously do not want to see a new outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence before the 2018 or 2020 elections.

While Turkey can perhaps help to keep Gaza peaceful, it can certainly help to do so in Cyprus, where it wields decisive influence over the island’s north. Turkey is the only country to recognize Northern Cyprus, a Turkish-speaking political entity Turkey established almost singlehandedly in the 1970s.

Moreover, the island as a whole needs Turkish aid in facilitating both gas and water pipelines across the eighty-kilometer sea-channel that separates Cyprus from the Turkish mainland.

The Turks may feel that they can now afford to throw their historic Greek and Greek-Cypriot rivals a bone, given that the economic decimation both Greece and Cyprus have suffered in the past decade have rendered them less of a potential threat to Turkish interests. Thus they may not stop peace talks on the island from moving forward.

America and its allies will also be happy to see reconciliation or even reunification in Cyprus, as it may help prevent another Mediterranean financial crisis or even help show off Trump’s dealmaking.

Indeed, while a reconciliation or reunification deal in Cyprus would not directly benefit Trump very much, it could perhaps help to provide him with momentum and bona fides he will want in order to make a more exciting and significant “deal of the century”: a deal which — taking a cue from his Celebrity Apprentice co-star Dennis Rodman — will likely be in Korea.

And of course, as Trump said while in Jerusalem, about peace between Israel and Palestine: “I’ve heard it’s one of the toughest deals of all, but I have a feeling we’re going to get there eventually. I hope.”

Winners and losers

In the end, in this scenario, the losers would be the Kurds in Syria and perhaps also the Kurds in Turkey. The winners would be the Cypriots and perhaps also the Israelis and Palestinians.

As for the American-Turkish relationship, more complicated years lie ahead. It may be that the relationship will ebb and flow along with expectations of the future price of oil, which will determine the perceived strength of Turkey relative to both Russia and Middle Eastern states. The United States will want to deputize Turkey to contain forces like Russia, Iran and Sunni jihadism, yet will also worry about Turkish intentions regarding smaller groups like the Kurds.

If oil prices stay low for long enough, it is likely that we will see the United States opt not just for the Trumpian move of bolstering relations between the Saudis and Israelis but also for the more Obama-esque one of reaching out to Iran in order to win a new powerful ally for America in the region.

This article originally appeared at Future Economics, June 6, 2017.