Which part of 'all' do you not understand?
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan put a positive spin on U.S.-Turkish relations last week, suggesting that he and President Trump get along well when they speak head-to-head, but that lower ranking U.S. officials often stand in the way of more positive relations.
Might this be the beginning of a charm offensive? Was Erdoğan revealing that he now finds the embrace of the Russian Bear and flights with the Persian Phoenix less enjoyable than previously foreseen? Or, was it simply posturing as an important player on the world stage as Turkey heads into municipal elections that many hope will loosen his party's grip on political power?
Most likely it was this last possibility.
In his recent comments, Erdoğan was likely pointing toward U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as a way to highlight his parity with the U.S. president. Alluding to Trump’s underlings in a pejorative and dismissive way allows Erdoğan to demonstrate to his supporters, especially those of a nationalist type, that the AKP leader is equal to the so-called leader of the free world. Wisely, Erdoğan refrained from mentioning the tariffs Trump imposed last year, or his threat last month to “devastate Turkey economically”.
In targeting Bolton and Pompeo, Erdoğan knows what he is doing. Numerous news outlets have reported that Bolton and Pompeo have been trying to delay or diminish the totality of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria. Like former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Bolton and Pompeo were reportedly taken by surprise by Trump’s decision.
Bolton was said to be shocked by Trump’s decision, which he experienced in real time as he listened in on the December phone call with Erdoğan during which Trump declared that U.S. forces would soon withdraw from Syria. Unlike Mattis, neither Bolton nor Pompeo is likely to resign.
In response to Bolton and Pompeo’s efforts to maintain the presence of U.S. forces in Syria, particularly in southern Syria near the border with Jordan, Trump has reportedly asked, “Which part of ‘all’ don’t you understand?” This phrasing would be in character with Trump’s blunt and sarcastic style. Both Bolton and Pompeo appear resigned to having to push forward their anti-Iran and counter-terrorism agendas within the context that Trump creates, a context that will soon be free of U.S. forces on the ground in Syra.
Are Erdoğan and Trump like to reach agreement on any other policy areas beyond the U.S. withdrawal? Probably not.
A friendly chat is unlikely to resolve the other issues causing friction between Turkey and the United States, unless one side decides to back down -- and neither one of these two likes to back down. It is worth recalling that Trump campaigned in 2016 on a promise to bring home U.S. forces from overseas wars and only kept U.S. forces in Syria to target the Islamic State (ISIS), as he noted in his State of the Union Address last week. The other areas of friction between the two NATO allies present no similar opportunities. Thus, setting issues aside by turning them over to subordinates is the likely path forward, at least in the short-term.
The outcome for the U.S.-allied, Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG) will tell us a great deal. We should expect Erdoğan to continue to threaten the YPG and even attack them if they try to maintain a military presence within 32 kilometers of the border with Turkey, which is the size of the proposed safe zone.
Until the withdrawal of U.S. forces is complete, YPG fighters should look to re-position themselves in northeastern Syria and in relation to the Assad regime, to whom they are already selling oil.
These are half-measures from Trump and Erdoğan: the former will not entirely abandon the Kurds as long as the latter refrains from going after them beyond the security zone. Bolton surely wants a continuing U.S. presence in Syria alongside pro-American Kurdish fighters in order to counter Iran, but he has likely accepted that “half a loaf is better than none”.
Dealing with remaining issues quietly would be in the best interest of both sides. Loud public pronouncements over Iran sanctions, Ankara’s acquisition of Russian S-400s, the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, the self-exiled Turkish cleric that Ankara sees as behind the 2016 coup attempt, or the detention of dual U.S.-Turkish citizens and Turkish citizen employees of the U.S. mission in Turkey would not help resolve those issues.
Toss in Turkey’s clearly stated support for Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, who is reportedly close to Erdoğan, and the need for quiet, sustained diplomatic engagement by professionals with clear guidance from their superiors presents itself as the best path forward. Unfortunately, both Erdoğan and Trump are prone to dismiss the advice of subordinates and advisors. Trump may be the more volatile of the two, but they both like to assert thei lead role in policy-making to demonstrate strength to their supporters.
As Turkey moves toward local elections on March 31, it will be ever more tempting for Erdoğan to point to the U.S. as the source of all of Turkey's difficulties in order to deflect voter criticism of the AKP's performance in the last few years. If he does, tweets threatening sanctions will likely follow, and Congressional attention on Erdoğan's anti-American rhetoric could intensify.
Improving U.S.-Turkey relations as U.S. troops withdraw from Syria and Turkey asserts it right to a safe zone along the Syrian border will require great self-restraint from both leaders.