Both Barack Obama and Donald Trump have really wanted to get along with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. There was a time when Obama described his relationship with Erdogan as one of the closest and most trusting of any world leader, before rifts over Syria, Turkey’s drift toward authoritarianism, and other issues strained the relationship. Trump has continually lauded Erdogan as a friend, even congratulating the Turkish leader after Erdogan won a controversial referendum expanding his powers, even as overall U.S.–Turkey relations have deteriorated sharply.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is in Ankara, Turkey, this week trying to repair relations that he admits have reached a “crisis point.” Tillerson met for 3½ hours with Erdogan on Thursday. In an unusual break with protocol, he wasn’t accompanied by an American translator or note taker, with Turkey’s foreign minister serving as translator.
The biggest flashpoint at the moment is Syria, where Turkey is angered by U.S. support for Kurdish fighters that it considers terrorists. Last month, Turkey launched a ground incursion into the border enclave of Afrin, Syria, to dislodge the Kurdish militia, the YPG, which it views as the Syrian branch of the PKK, the Kurdish militant group that’s been battling the Turkish government for decades.
Afrin is noncontiguous with the much larger area to the east controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces in cooperation with the U.S. military. The U.S. has worked closely with the SDF, the most effective fighting force against ISIS in Syria. American authorities have, unconvincingly, claimed that the Kurdish fighters in Afrin have no connection to their allies, even though most SDF commanders come from the YPG. The U.S. has done little to interfere with Turkey’s Afrin incursion, but the problem is that Turkey has threatened to sweep east along the border to dislodge the Kurds from the town of Manbij, Syria, where U.S. forces are also stationed. This could put U.S. and Turkish troops in direct conflict. Erdogan has vowed that U.S. troops that stand in Turkey’s way would receive an “Ottoman slap.”
The Turkish government proposed this week that the U.S. and Turkey could jointly deploy forces in Manbij, as long as the YPG withdrew from the area. Tillerson said that joint working groups would be set up to address troop deployments.
This is something of a breakthrough, but the underlying issue remains: Turkey is unwilling to tolerate a semi-autonomous Kurdish region controlled by the YPG on its border, and the Pentagon is not going to stop cooperating with the one Syrian ally that can put up a formidable fight against ISIS. (The latest crisis started in January, when the U.S. military announced American troops would be staying in areas liberated from ISIS to work with local forces—i.e., the Kurds, mainly—to establish a border security force. Tillerson had to quickly dial back that announcement to placate Turkey, to the point that it’s not entirely clear what these troops will be doing now that the fighting against ISIS is starting to wrap up.)
Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is more than happy to watch his rivals, the Turks and the Kurds, fighting each other while the U.S. is caught right in the middle.
It’s hard to see how this Syrian knot gets untangled, and it’s not even the only issue dividing the U.S. and Turkey. Turkey continues to demand the extradition of Fethullah Gülen, the exiled cleric that Erdogan’s government blames for the 2016 coup attempt, and to criticize the trial of a Turkish banker accused of evading Iran sanctions. The U.S., meanwhile, is demanding that Turkey release U.S citizens and government employees arrested as part of Erdogan’s wide-ranging crackdown since the coup. These include an American pastor whom the Turkish government appears to be using as a bargaining chip for Gülen. With Michael Flynn no longer available to whisk him away in the dead of night, the Gülen crisis also seems far from a resolution—the U.S. government has found the evidence against the cleric unconvincing—and Erdogan does not seem likely to let the issue go.
The mistrust runs deep, and not just between the governments. A poll released by the Center for American Progress this week shows 83 percent of Turks expressing an unfavorable opinion of the United States. It’s going to take a lot more than a few meetings to bridge this divide.
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