US President Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan met twice on the sidelines of the G20 summit at the weekend. The meetings are a good sign that progress is being made in resetting and correcting the course of US-Turkish relations in at least one major sphere — Syria — as well as the lifting of sanctions against the Turkish state-owned Halkbank. Both are related and might be considered one basket of several that need to be dealt with between the two countries.
Some background is necessary regarding the run-up to the two private meetings. Turkey is urging the US to complete the implementation of a bilateral deal that stipulates the withdrawal of all Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) from the Syrian province of Manbij by the end of 2018, and to expand the scope of the deal to the east of the Euphrates to avoid a confrontation between Turkish and American troops. Turkey believes the successful implementation of the Manbij deal might constitute a good path forward for addressing similar problems east of the Euphrates, where the YPG has control along with US troops.
Ankara’s aggressive tone toward the US in the run-up to the G20 illustrated that Erdogan was ready to push harder for an American withdrawal. Erdogan argued in a speech to party deputies in the Turkish parliament that Daesh did not exist in Syria, calling the extremists remaining in the country a “small number of gangs” trained and equipped by large foreign states in order to create chaos in the region. Erdogan labeled the US’ rationale for maintaining a presence in Syria — to decisively defeat Daesh — as a mere excuse and he wanted Trump to make good on his offer to pull troops out of Syria. And, a few days later, the Erdogan-chaired National Security Council released a statement declaring that the most serious threat to Turkey in Syria was in the area to the east of the Euphrates that is controlled by the YPG and its affiliates with America’s backing.
Turkish press coverage of the Erdogan-Trump relationship is an important indicator of where Ankara sees it can garner the most leverage.
Dr. Theodore Karasik
In Argentina, both the US and Turkey had an opportunity to discuss the ongoing situation in Syria. Erdogan said that the two nations are strategic partners and discussed Manbij, Idlib and terrorist groups in northern Syria, which is a matter that continues to be an obstacle in the reconciliation of strained relations between the two NATO allies, despite a deal made for cooperation.
Erdogan said that the north of Syria threatens Turkey directly. Importantly, the Turks are now preparing for the entire northern settlement by also calling for another four-nation Istanbul summit concerning Idlib with Germany, France and Russia. Erdogan is seeking to finish operations in the east of the Euphrates while taking more steps to settle the situation in and around Idlib. In other words, Erdogan sought to put in place the next step of Ankara’s plan for northern Syria by setting the path forward with the US and, separately, with Europe, which is reflective of the current divide between Trump and Eurasia.
Importantly, the Turkish press played a role in preparing the atmosphere for the Argentine meetings. Simply put, the Turkish press does not attack Trump but attacks Washington. Erdogan still thinks his personal relationship with Trump can lead to deals. Given how careless these newspapers have been in their attacks against foreign countries, the Turkish media’s approach toward Trump is clearly calculated. When Trump imposed sanctions on Turkey in August in order to secure the release of the imprisoned American pastor Andrew Brunson, Turkish media downplayed the confrontation. The story made few Turkish front pages, and coverage tended to attribute the sanctions to the “United States” rather than to Trump himself. Turkish press coverage of the Erdogan-Trump relationship is an important indicator of where Ankara sees it can garner the most leverage.
Ankara feels that it is in a good position to negotiate and, thus, part of the focus of the Trump-Erdogan meetings was to lift US sanctions on Halkbank. The bank’s gold for oil operation laundered up to $37.5 billion of Iranian money with the permission of its senior executives and the support of Turkish politicians. The Turkish Deputy CEO of Halkbank, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, is serving time in a US jail for sanctions violations, while American officials and lawyers accuse Erdogan of knowing of the scheme based on the testimony of the architect of the operation, Turkish-Iranian gold dealer Reza Zarrab. Erdogan wants this case resolved, as the lifting of sanctions and unfreezing of assets between the two countries now appears to be the current trajectory.
This current basket of discussions between Trump and Erdogan is an important indicator of where the bilateral relationship is going and has implications for a number of different issues, including the future of US arms sales to Turkey, such as F-35 fighters, and also Russia’s S-400 missile system sale to Ankara. These issues reveal the complexity of the current bilateral relationship, which is subject to upcoming bumps and warning signs. Overall, Erdogan is likely to receive concessions from Trump on Syria and on sanctions relief in order to move the bilateral agenda forward. But Congress may not like that.
- Dr. Theodore Karasik is a senior adviser to Gulf State Analytics in Washington, DC. He is a former RAND Corp. senior political scientist who lived in the UAE for 10 years, focusing on security issues. Twitter: @tkarasik