Trump’s refugee ban: A sign U.S.-Turkey tension will continue

He’s only been president for a week, but Donald Trump has already taken a step toward realizing his controversial Muslim ban.

On Friday, January 27, Trump signed an executive order that has wide-ranging consequences for Muslims and refugees worldwide. Titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” the EO halts the resettlement of Syrian refugees for an indefinite period, while the entire refugee resettlement program is to be halted for 120 days.

Additionally, the EO will suspend entry into the U.S. for both immigrant and non-immigrant nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries for 90 days. These countries are understood to be Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen.

The Department of Homeland Security has confirmed that the entry ban applies to green card holders, and there were already cases of refugees and travelers being detained at airports across the U.S. a day after the EO was signed. On Saturday night, amid massive protests at airports across the country, a federal court in New York temporarily blocked deportations related to the EO, though the block does not pertain to detentions and only applies to those affected persons who had already arrived in the U.S.

The EO makes no mention of Islam or Muslims, and during a recent interview with ABC, Trump insisted  that the order does not bring about a “Muslim ban” but is instead aimed at preventing terror attacks in the U.S. by targeting “countries that have tremendous terror.” But the order contains language that would allow immigration officials to make exceptions for refugees who have been persecuted for their religion, but only if their religion is a minority in their home countries, thus disqualifying most Muslim refugees.

As critics have pointed out, so-called “Islamic terror” in the U.S. is more likely to be carried out by homegrown terrorists, not individuals abusing the U.S.’s immigration and visa system. Even when terrorists manipulated the visa system in order to gain entry to the U.S. and carry out the 9/11 attacks, the individuals came from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Lebanon, and Egypt. None of these countries are included in the EO, and all of them are U.S. allies. Additionally, with the exception of Lebanon, these are countries where President Trump has had business ties.

The order is just a first step in what many expect to be an outwardly Islamophobic Trump administration, and while many Muslim-majority countries are not included in the current entry restrictions, they could be included at a later time.

For crucial allies of the U.S in the Muslim world, such as Turkey, the recent EO is a troubling sign of things to come.

U.S.-Turkey relations at their lowest point

Some in the American media have noted that Turkey is among the countries where Trump has had business ties. However, Turkey’s status as a NATO member and a critical security ally of the U.S. is a more likely reason that it has been excluded from the recent entry restrictions.

After an initial upswing in U.S.-Turkey relations during the Obama administration — when Turkey was lauded as a “model Muslim democracy” — a variety of developments in the Middle East and issues between Washington and Ankara have brought the relationship to its lowest point in at least a decade. The beginning of the decline came after the Turkish government’s harsh reaction to the Gezi Park protests in the summer of 2013, which was ill-received in the U.S.The Turkish government’s increasingly poor human rights record following the protests also became a sore spot for the Obama administration.

However, it was the growing divide between the U.S. and Turkey on the Syrian crisis that pushed the relationship to a breaking point. Washington’s Syria policy is laser-focused on ISIS, while Turkey’s approach is centered on the resolution of the broader Syrian civil war.

As such, Washington and Ankara have largely disagreed on Syria from the outset of the conflict, and the lack of coordination between the allies on Syria is striking. It wasn’t until the summer of 2015 that the U.S. finally convinced Turkey to allow the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL to use Incirlik Air Base in the fight against ISIS. For its part, Turkey has often walked away empty-handed from its attempted dialogues with Washington, including a demand for the establishment of a no-fly zone and a joint operation against ISIS in northern Syria.

The crisis in U.S.-Turkey relations has deepened even further thanks to the U.S.’s support of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria. The U.S. considers the Kurdish YPG as one of the most effective groups in the fight against ISIS. However, Turkey views the YPG as a terrorist organization due to its connection with the PKK. The PKK has been waging an insurgency against the Turkish state for four decades and is also designated as a terrorist group by the U.S. and the EU.

Recently, Turkey has shunned the U.S. to work closely with Russia and Iran on a negotiated solution to the Syrian conflict while placing Turkish boots on the ground in northern Syria as part of Operation Euphrates Shield. Within the operation, Turkish troops are supporting local Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces in the fight against not just ISIS, but also the YPG. The operation in northern Syria has raised the possibility of intense conflict between two of Washington’s most crucial partners in the fight against ISIL.

As such, the Trump administration inherits a sensitive U.S.-Turkey relationship that will not be easy to fix.

Executive order forces Turkey to see the reality of Trump

Despite recent challenges, Turkey remains a crucial U.S. ally in the Middle East and an essential partner in the fight against ISIS, as recognized by Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson during his confirmation hearing when he encouraged the U.S. to re-engage with Ankara on Syria.

But in the same testimony, Tillerson also supported a re-commitment to “Syrian Kurds,” suggesting that the U.S. policy of supporting the YPG might not end anytime soon. While the Turkish government has expressed its hope for better U.S.-Turkey relations under Trump, as Semih Idiz writes in Al-Monitor, Ankara is already realizing that the reality could be very different.

Turkish President Erdoğan recently acknowledged that Turkey is taking a “wait and see” approach when it comes to Trump’s policies on the Middle East. “[S]ome language concerning the Middle East is reaching our ear, and to be frank it is disturbing,” he told reporters before leaving for a trip to Africa on January 24.

While Trump’s recent executive order does not have direct bearing on Turkey or Turkish nationals, it sends a very Islamophobic message to the world’s Muslims. For the AKP government — which has increasingly adopted a political programme inspired by Islamic principles that appeals to Turkey’s more devout and conservative citizens — any U.S. action that appears to target Muslims is a sign of rough waters ahead.

Designation of Muslim Brotherhood as terrorist organization in the works

Currently, there is a movement within the Trump administration to designate the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as a terrorist organization. The AKP government — and President Erdoğan especially — has been a major supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood throughout its meteoric rise and fall following the Egyptian revolution. When Egyptian the military toppled the Muslim Brotherhood government in a violent military coup in summer 2013, Erdogan was the most vocal leader expressing solidarity for ousted president Mohamed Morsi and protesters of the coup. The price of his support was a crisis in Egypt-Turkey relations that continues to this day.

Trump’s National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn is apparently leading the call for the Muslim Brotherhood’s designation as a terror organization. However, Flynn also published an explosive op-ed in The Hill just a day after Trump’s election advocating for the extradition of Fethullah Gülen, who Turkey blames for masterminding the July 15 coup attempt, among other crimes. In the op-ed, Flynn paints a picture of Gülen as a radical terrorist of the Muslim Brotherhood variety while calling Turkey “our strongest ally against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), as well as a source of stability in the [Middle East].”

For now, Turkey seems to be safe from the outward Islamophobia of the Trump administration. However, Trump is famously unpredictable, and it is therefore uncertain whether Turkey will be able to avoid suffering from the administration’s anti-Muslim sentiment forever.

Turkey won’t get help from Trump on refugees

Beyond the EO’s xenophobic flavor toward Muslims, its implications for refugees are perhaps even more troubling for Turkey. Turkey hosts the largest refugee population in the world, and the grand majority of its more than 3 million refugees are Syrians. The U.S. and Turkey were never collaborating on a large scale regarding refugee resettlement, and so the ban on Syrian refugees per se will not significantly disrupt Turkey’s efforts to resettle them in a third country, especially given the ongoing cooperation between the EU and Turkey on this issue.

Yet, in a speech to the 2016 UN General Assembly, President Erdoğan called on the international community to take more responsibility for the refugee crisis and emphasized Turkey’s dire need for both financial and material support in its effort to take care of its refugee community. Since fiscal year 2012, the U.S. has provided $440 million in funding to help Turkey support its refugees. But the Trump administration has already signaled a drastic reduction in funding to the UN and other international organizations that help Syrian refugees. His financial priorities in the U.S. — “yes” to a multi-billion dollar wall on the Mexican border; “no” to the Office of Violence Against Women and the National Endowment for the Humanities — show that providing aid to Turkey for its refugee population is not on the agenda.

With the recent EO, the message sent by Trump’s refugee ban to both refugees and refugee-hosting communities is loud and clear: you’re on your own. It’s not the kind of message that Ankara wants to hear from a critical ally.

Less U.S. support for refugees is unlikely to trigger a new crisis in U.S.-Turkey relations in the near future. But it is one of a variety of factors that, if taken together, could spell the end of any hopes for a renewed partnership between the countries. Going forward, the Turkish government may be able to turn a blind eye to the Trump administration’s blatant Islamophobia. But the recent EO signals that there is little room for optimism about a more positive U.S.-Turkey relationship. The Trump administration has already laid out an “America First” foreign policy, and for Turkey, “second” is simply not going to be good enough.

Audrey Williams

Audrey Williams, “Trump’s refugee ban: A sign U.S.-Turkey tension will continue”, Independent Turkey, 30 January 2017, London: Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (Research Turkey). Original link: http://researchturkey.org/?p=13203

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