Approach with caution: Trump a foreign policy livewire for Turkey

*Source: Serbestiyet ©

The unthinkable has happened. Donald Trump is the U.S. President Elect. The American public is now grappling with what a Trump presidency will look like. If it is to be anything like what the nation has seen in the last week, the next four years are looking pretty grim.

Protests have broken out across the country, turning violent when a person was shot during a protest in Portland. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has received reports of more than 200 hate crimes since Election Day. SPLC president Richard Cohen attributes them directly to “the rhetoric surrounding Mr. Trump’s election.”

While Americans are already dealing with the fallout of Trump’s racist, sexist campaign, the rest of the world is anxiously waiting to see how a Trump foreign policy will play out.

Trump has no previous political experience, and his campaign was less than robust when it came to foreign policy. Instead of careful consideration of the issues, he relied on aggressive rhetoric and explosive sound bites when addressing America’s place in the world. He spoke up against the Iran nuclear deal, praised controversial world leaders like Russian President Putin, congratulated Britain on its “Brexit” from Europe, and even expressed his belief that it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if countries like Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia obtained a nuclear capability.

There are fears that Trump’s propensity for less than diplomatic behavior and apparent nonchalance on serious matters of national security will endanger the U.S. But while much of the world shudders to think of what will come to pass with Trump in the White House, some world leaders can barely hide their delight at America’s electoral upset.

Putin was quick to congratulate Trump on his victory and express hopes for better U.S.-Russia relations. A Putin aide recently said that Trump and Putin resemble each other in their worldview, and a Russian diplomat has revealed that the Kremlin had been in contact with the Trump team during his campaign

The Trump campaign denies the diplomat’s claims, but it is clear that Putin and Trump share a mutual admiration for each other. Coming off an election in which large-scale hacking of DNC and Clinton campaign emails was attributed to Russia, the coziness between Trump and Putin is troubling at best and dangerous for American security and democracy at worst.

But Putin isn’t the only world leader pleased to see a Trump administration. Turkish President Erdoğan wasted no time in congratulating the President-elect over the phone on November 9. The two threw in a discussion of U.S.-Turkey relations and counterterrorism cooperation for good measure. In his initial statement on Trump’s victory, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım called on the Trump administration to extradite Fethullah Gülen, the Pennsylvania cleric who Ankara claims orchestrated the July 15 coup attempt as leader of a shadowy group labeled the Fethullah Gülen Terror Organization (FETO) by the Turkish government. Gülen and his followers deny any wrongdoing.

On November 11, Yıldırım followed up his initial statement with a direct phone conversation with Trump, during which the President Elect expressed his belief in the importance of the U.S.-Turkey partnership and communicated a desire for greater cooperation regionally and internationally.

As Selim Koru reported for Foreign Policy, the ecstasy over Trump extends beyond the Turkish government to some of its supporters, especially among analysts and the media. Even before the election results rolled in, there was a surprising amount of support for Trump in Turkey. However, this surprising affinity was based less on Trump himself and more on worries about a Clinton presidency. In Turkey, Clinton’s campaign was perceived as being close to the Gülen movement. Reports emerged of major contributions by Gülen’s followers to her campaign, as well as links between Gülenist groups and Clinton campaign officials like Vice President Tim Kaine and campaign chairman John Podesta. These links convinced many that a Clinton presidency would be even worse for U.S.-Turkey relations than the present administration.

While Trump himself has not addressed the issue of Gülen’s extradition directly, one of the individuals rumored to be in line for the role of National Security Advisor, General Michael Flynn, recently penned an op-ed in The Hill calling Turkey a foreign policy priority and urging the U.S. to avoid providing “safe haven” to Gülen. The op-ed has raised the possibility that a Trump administration might extradite Gülen as a first step toward revitalizing the relationship between the U.S. and Turkey.

Another major area of concern for Turkey is the U.S.’s support for the YPG, a Kurdish militant group that is part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The U.S. government considers the SDF to be the most effective fighting force against ISIS. But the links between the YPG and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) trouble Turkey, which has been adamant that the YPG be contained in northern Syria and not take part in a major offensive against the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa.

Unfortunately for Turkey, the YPG are now working with other SDF forces to isolate Raqqa as the first part of said offensive. But the U.S. hasn’t dismissed Turkey’s concerns outright. A week ago, General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Ankara to smooth out concerns over the offensive and start discussing a long-term plan for Raqqa that considers not just its seizure, but also its governance in the wake of an ISIS defeat.

During the meeting, General Dunford and his Turkish counterpart, General Hulusi Akar, agreed that an American military staff lead by a high-ranking officer would work within the Turkish General Staff in Ankara and would “act as a point of contact for the Combined Joint Task Force operating against ISIL.” This Ankara-based staff signals the U.S.’s willingness to work with its Turkish partners – and its acknowledgment of their concerns. If it operates as planned, the partnership will be sustained by the Trump administration and will serve as a vital component not just of U.S.-Turkey relations but also America’s Syria policy.

It remains uncertain how a Trump administration would deal with Syria however. If a softer tone on Russia is to be expected, it is likely that Trump will be more amenable to closer cooperation with Moscow on Syria. The driving force of the U.S.’s Syria policy will remain the fight against ISIS, and in that case, whoever can prove themselves to be the toughest, non-radical Islamist fighters against ISIS will win favor. This could mean even less pressure on the Assad regime and a continuation of support for the Kurdish YPG. However, if improved U.S.-Turkey relations are a goal for the Trump administration, then the President Elect will find himself in exactly the same conundrum as Obama does now.

In an already ambiguous Trump foreign policy puzzle, the U.S.-Turkey relationship stands out as a particularly difficult piece to visualize. On the one hand, Trump’s unabashed support of leaders with illiberal views of democracy and his determination to wipe out ISIS lend itself to a warming of relations between Ankara and Washington. On the other hand, Trump’s rhetoric against Muslims places him as squarely opposed to anyone perceived of being Islamist – which is bad news for the Erdoğan government. Already Trump has spoken unfavorably of Turkey with regard to the fight against ISIS. During a radio interview in December 2015, when discussing the Turkish government, he said it “looks like they’re on the side of ISIS more or less based on the oil.”

As a Nato member, it would generally follow that the U.S. under Trump would endeavor to stand by its ally, Turkey. But even Nato has not escaped Trump’s unconventional and erratic view of national security. In an interview with The New York Times, Trump implied that under his administration, U.S. military support for Nato allies would be made conditional on whether they are “paying their bills” with regard to defense spending. Such a policy would run counter against Article 5 of Nato, which sets out a standard of “collective defense” that requires allies to come to the defense of any member that has been attacked.

Less than a week following Trump’s election, Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg emphasized in an op-ed that “[n]ow is not the time for the US to abandon Nato.” While he did not mention Trump directly, it is clear that his intended audience was not the Obama administration.

The July 15 coup attempt offered another opportunity for Trump to show how quickly his tone can change to fit his interests. His first response to the coup attempt as it was underway was to tweet that the Turks were “taking their country back!” But less than a week later, in the same interview in which he questioned U.S. support of Nato allies, he gave credit to Erdoğan and the Turkish people for foiling the coup. He went on to express his belief that the U.S. “could have a potentially very successful relationship with Turkey.” He took his commentary on the coup attempt further nearly a month later when, in a now deleted tweet, he wrote “I’ve got fresh evidence 13 CIA senior officers helped in Turkey Failed Coup.” Some Turkish media outlets picked up the tweet, which fit neatly with the narrative in Turkey that alleges CIA involvement in the coup attempt.

And now Erdoğan is responding to Trump’s improved view on Turkey with his own shift in perspective. This past summer, Erdoğan denounced Trump’s Islamophobic rhetoric and went so far as to call for the removal of Trump’s branding from the Trump Towers in Istanbul. But now that the elections are over, Erdoğan recently communicated to Trump his hope that Turkey would be one of his first foreign visits when he takes office. According to Erdoğan, Trump responded “positively” to the suggestion.

While some in the Turkish government may eagerly await January 20, Trump’s past dismissal of Nato and previous comments on Turkey mean that the way forward for U.S.-Turkey relations is not guaranteed to play out in Ankara’s favor. Given Trump’s favorable view of Putin and determination to see ISIS fall, if Turkey can maintain positive ties with Russia and sell itself as a reliable ally against ISIS, it may see movement on its two biggest concerns with Washington: the YPG and Gülen.

But as Trump has shown time and again, he has no problem changing his tune from one day to the next. The Turkish government may feel it has dodged a bullet with Clinton’s defeat, but it will have to be careful with the livewire that will be a Trump presidency.

Audrey Williams

Audrey Williams, “Approach with caution: Trump a foreign policy livewire for Turkey”, Independent Turkey, 14 November 2016, London: Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (Research Turkey). Original link:



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