Erdoğan likely to push Trump to reverse ‘double whammy’

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has repeatedly shown the ability to influence and manipulate U.S. President Donald Trump, though two resolutions passed by the U.S. House on Tuesday highlight the Turkish leader’s lesser influence among U.S. lawmakers. 

After a December 2018 phone call between the two presidents, Trump announced that U.S. troops would withdraw from Syria. The move was soon reversed, but it shocked Washington’s foreign policy establishment and led to the resignations of two key U.S. officials, Defense Secretary James Mattis and counter-Islamic State (ISIS) envoy Brett McGurk. 

After the two met during the June G-20 summit in Japan, Trump told reporters that he appreciated Turkey’s position on its purchase of Russian S-400 air defence missiles. In the months since he has refrained from applying the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act against Turkey, which its deal with Russia should have triggered. 

Last month, following another phone talk with Erdoğan, Trump again announced U.S. troops would be leaving Syria, allowing Turkey to go forward with its long-planned offensive against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and its affiliate People’s Protection Units (YPG). Turkey views the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has led an insurgency in Turkey since 1984 and is labelled a terrorist group by the United States and European Union, as well as Turkey. 

“Erdoğan has learned to manipulate Trump and Erdoğan has been able to influence Donald Trump’s personal talking points,” said Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East programme at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. 

Stein said Turkish officials identified Trump as their preferred U.S. presidential candidate back in October 2016. “I thought Donald Trump would be an Islamophobe that would work against Turkish interests,” he said. 

“But the Turks rightly concluded that Trump was corruptible and not very smart, and therefore he was manipulable - he could be a transactional partner that would work toward Turkey’s interests,” Stein added. “It took three years, but they ultimately got it.”

The two leaders are set to meet in Washington on Nov. 13, and observers expect Erdoğan to seek to reverse or neutralise two House resolutions passed this week, which the New York Times described as a rebuke to Trump and one analyst described as a “double whammy” against Turkey.  

The first resolution marks an official recognition of the Armenian Genocide. The House move, which came on the anniversary of the birth of the Republic of Turkey, is not unprecedented. In 1975 and in 1984, the House also adopted resolutions acknowledging the Armenian Genocide. And in April 1981, President Ronald Reagan issued a Presidential Proclamation on the matter. 

The second House resolution, which like the first must be approved by the Senate to become binding, calls for sanctioning Erdoğan and other Turkish officials involved in the Syria offensive, as well as Turkish banks linked to the defence sector, and penalising Turkey for its purchase of Russian S-400 missiles.

Russian officials told Turkey on Tuesday that Syrian and Russian forces had successfully cleared the YPG from a strip of land along Turkey’s border, as per last week’s agreement between Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin, and that joint Russian-Turkish patrols could begin.

Stein said he expected Russia would soon integrate the YPG into the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad, which would raise security issues for Turkey and give Assad and Putin some leverage over Erdoğan. 

Turkey’s offensive in northeast Syria has thus far displaced some 180,000 people, and many, including former U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power, have described Turkish actions there as ethnic cleansing, in part because Erdoğan has repeatedly expressed his desire to settle mostly Syrian Arab refugees in the area, much of which has had a Kurdish majority in recent decades. 

“Erdoğan has said he wants to move 2 million people into these areas. I think that would be tantamount to ethnic re-engineering,” said Stein.

Stein does not foresee Ankara being able to implement that plan, nor does he see a coherent Turkish approach in northeast Syria, but rather the significant influence of Russia. Reports this week have said Turkey is also considering buying Russian Su-35 fighter jets. Also this week, Pentagon officials said Turkey’s S-400s are expected to be operational by the end of the year. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has cautioned U.S. officials to think carefully before sanctioning Turkey and pushing Ankara further toward Russia. In the Washington Post last week, Ilhan Omar, a member of the House of Representatives, also argued against sanctioning Turkey, saying that while Turkey’s Syria offensive had been a disaster, sanctions tend to be incoherent and counter-productive. 

“I don’t understand the point of collapsing Turkey’s economy or even threatening to do it for an invasion of Syria,” said Stein, though he did understand punishing Turkey for its S-400 purchase. 

“Turkey has met the threshold for CAATSA sanctions,” said Stein, pointing out that Ankara even aired live video of the arrival of the S-400s, “rubbing the nose of the Americans in the faeces of this deal”.

There have been reports that Trump is negotiating with Turkish officials behind the scenes in an effort to secure the purchase of U.S.-made Patriot missiles to replace the S-400s. Still, most U.S. officials would prefer not to sanction Turkey. 

“People don’t want to alienate a NATO ally,” said Stein, who said it was possible Turkey would buy Patriots at next month’s summit. 

“But a negotiation entails a give and take on both sides, and Turkey never gives, it only takes,” said Stein, who thinks Turkish officials do not realise how few defenders they have left in the White House. 

“Erdoğan played his cards right,” Stein added. “He got another face-to-face meeting with Trump where he can present his case, and when he gets a meeting with Trump, Trump usually capitulates to his point of view.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.