The uncertainties about the U.S.’s new Middle East policy under Donald Trump have been straining nerves in Ankara, as Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan made public on Jan. 22 before heading his visit to three Africa countries.
When asked about Turkey’s relations with the U.S. in the Trump era, a general question without any specific subject, Erdoğan directly went into Turkey’s Middle East concerns.
“What will Trump’s position be on the Middle East? Because the region is boiling up. We keep hearing words [from him] about the Middle East that are actually disturbing,” he said, without elaborating.
“We are in favor of a Middle East where territorial integrity is respected. We are not in favor of a fragmented Middle East, which would not be right … As Turkey we cannot say ‘yes’ to such a thought,” he added.
High-level Turkish sources say Erdoğan could be referring to Trump’s potential Syria policy and the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Former U.S. President Barack Obama’s choice to support the Democratic Union Party (PYD) militia as a ground force against ISIL has brought two NATO allies, Turkey and the U.S., into confrontation, as the PYD is the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is fighting against Turkey and which is also designated as a terrorist group by the U.S.
Turkish sources say Trump’s defense and diplomacy teams are not in favor of working with non-state actors, like the PKK-affiliated PYD, and could prefer working with state actors like Turkey, Iraq and even Russia and the Syrian regime, in order to contain and defeat ISIL as soon as possible. But at the end of the day it will be Trump’s call. Erdoğan had suggested to Obama collaborating against ISIL, if the U.S. drops the PYD as a partner, before ordering the Turkish military to move into Syria in August 2016 together with Free Syria Army (FSA) forces to push ISIL away from the Turkish border and to prevent the PYD from occupying those areas.
Turkey has justified its recent cooperation with the Russian military in its operations in Syria by referring to the lack of support received from the U.S.-led anti-ISIL coalition, which is operating from Turkey’s strategic Incirlik air base. Defense Minister Fikri Işık saidAnkara had postponed its call to cancel its permit to use İncirlik after Trump entered office.
But sources say Ankara is confused by various statements from Trump and his team about continuing to support “Kurdish fighters” against ISIL, without elaborating on whether they mean the PYD or other Kurdish groups in the Syria-Iraq theater, such as the Peshmerga forces of the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) led by Masoud Barzani, which is currently on good terms with Ankara.
Another issue of concern for Ankara regarding the Middle East is Trump’s vow during his campaign to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital instead of Tel Aviv, which could radically destabilize the region. French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said on Jan. 15, following a conference on the Israel-Palestine issue in Paris, that moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem would be a “provocation.” Turkey is one of a majority of countries that keeps its embassy in Tel Aviv and is sensitive about not recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
If Trump insists on moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, that could add another problem to the existing ones between Ankara and Washington.
Meanwhile, Turkey also expects Trump to extradite or at least take legal action against Fethullah Gülen, the Islamist preacher who is living in the U.S. and who is accused of masterminding the July 2016 coup attempt. Erdoğan did not mention that issue in his Jan. 22 press conference.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, who represented Ankara at Trump’s inauguration ceremony on Jan. 20, had unofficial contacts earlier in the week with Trump’s pick for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Çavuşoğlu is also accompanying Erdoğan on his trip to Tanzania, Mozambique and Madagascar.
One high-ranking source who asked not to be named told the Hürriyet Daily News on Jan. 22 that Erdoğan’s remarks could be read as a preemptive move to raise concerns before his first encounter with Trump.
Erdoğan said he was looking forward to that first meeting, where he wanted to talk on matters “from A to Z.” Ankara thinks the perfect timing for a meeting could be during or after a NATO “mini-summit,” planned for late February or early March, during which U.S.-NATO relations are expected to be updated.
Another important subject concerning Turkey’s position on the Middle East and the U.S. is the Syria meeting due on Jan. 23 in the Kazakh capital Astana. That will be the second stage to consolidating the ceasefire between the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria and the rebel forces brokered by Turkey and Russia on Dec. 29, 2016 with the assistance of Iran. The U.S. is invited to the Astana talks and will be represented there, despite objections from Iran.
Turkish sources say the importance of the Astana meeting is that it will bring representatives of the regime and rebel forces together for the first time since the start of the six-year civil war in Syria, under the auspices of the United Nations, which will be represented by Staffan di Mistura, the U.N.’s envoy on the Syrian crisis.
If further steps can be taken in Astana to consolidate the ceasefire, excluding attacks on ISIL and al-Qaeda- affiliated groups, one ranking source told HDN, “that would be an important contribution the Geneva talks on the political future of Syria on Feb. 8, and also contribute to de-escalating tension in the Middle East.”