Trump and Erdogan

As part of a “reset” with Sunni allies, President Trump met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, following yesterday’s meeting with the UAE.

Turkey is officially a secular nation.  However, it can be considered a Sunni country for all practical purposes of understanding geopolitics in the Middle East.  President Trump is proving to be far more nuanced than many expected in his Middle Eastern policies.  The airstrikes on Syria showed that Trump is not as close with Russian President Putin as many of his critics have claimed, and many Sunni allies feared.  And while President Trump is keeping the door open to cooperation with Russia, he is also smoothing over relations with some more traditional Sunni allies.  Turkey is one of the most crucial of these allies, as they are bordering both Russia and Syria, and they have significant military capabilities.

The Meeting

The two presidents met in the Oval Office at 12:43 PM EDT.

“It is a great honor to have President Erdogan from Turkey here. We’re going to have a long and hard discussions. We know that they will be very successful. We’ve had a great relationship and we will make it even better.”

Initial questions from the press were ignored, but President Trump promised to make a statement.

After praising Turkey for their support in past conflicts, particularly the Korean War following WWII, President Trump highlighted the need for a continued alliance against terrorist groups.

“We support Turkey in the first fight against terror and terror groups like ISIS and the PKK, and ensure they have no safe quarter — the terror groups.”

There is tension, however, over an American political prisoner, Pastor Andrew Brunson.  Pastor Brunson has been in Turkish prison along with his wife since October of last year.  According to a White House press release, “President Trump raised the incarceration of Pastor Andrew Brunson and asked that the Turkish Government expeditiously return him to the United States.”

There is also tension over many conflicting interests in the Syrian Civil War.

The Tangled Web

While ISIS is a clear common enemy, the PKK needs some explanation.  They are a Kurdish group in Turkey fighting for an autonomous Kurdish province.  While they are an enemy of Turkey, their fellow Kurds in Iraq are close allies of the US.  The Kurds in Syria potentially could be also, as they are fighting ISIS and have what is at best a fragile alliance with the Assad regime.  Turkey, however, in their ongoing conflict with the Kurds, particularly the PKK, is also attacking Kurds in Syria.

Everyone wants to defeat ISIS in theory.  The Kurds are allied with Assad in Syria, and the US in Iraq, and thus are usually not labelled as “terrorists”.  However, the Kurds in Turkey, the PKK, are labelled as terrorists, and seem to have no allies.  While the US has no direct interest in aiding the PKK, fierce opposition to them could hurt US relations with the Kurds in Iraq and Syria.

Navigating the Web with Turkey and President Erdogan

While ISIS is the common enemy of the US, Turkey, all of the Kurds, Russia, and the Assad regime; there are clearly conflicts between these groups also.  Many worried that Trump was too focused on defeating ISIS only, and would tip the balance of power in favor of Russia and the Assad regime.

Trump’s recent moves, including this meeting, show that he is not going to give Russia free reign in the Middle East.  However, Erdogan has recently voiced opposition to US support for the Kurds in Syria.  Despite this, Erdogan continues to look to the US for support against ISIS, and the PKK.

In his statement, President Trump also indicated, “Military equipment was ordered by Turkey and the president, and we’ve made sure that it gets there quickly.”

The press did not have access to the luncheon that followed.  However, the press was informed that the following from the Turkish delegation, in addition to President Erdogan, were in attendance:

Minister of National Defense Fikri Isik, Chief of General Staff Hulusi Akar, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, Minister of Economy Nihat Zeybekci, Chief of the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (M.I.T), Dr. Hakan Fidan, and Presidential spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin

The US delegation (Trump’s side of the table) included:

Gary Cohn, H.R. McMaster, James Mattis, Mike Pence, Trump, Rex Tillerson, an open seat, Jared Kushner and Dina Powell.

And Russia?

Trump still supports cooperation with Russia, while working to rebuild alliances with Sunni nations.

“We had a very, very successful meeting with the foreign minister of Russia. Our fight is against ISIS. As Gen. McMaster said, I thought he said and I know he feels that we had actually a great meeting with the foreign minister. So we’re going to have a lot of great success over the next coming years and we want to get as many to help fight terrorism as possible and that’s one of the beautiful things that’s happening with Turkey. The relationship that we have together, we’ll be unbeatable.”

Trump is walking a fine line between the Russia/Assad alliance, and the US Sunni allies, in his effort to isolate and ultimately defeat ISIS.

(Updates will be added if appropriate.)

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Richard Wagner is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Florida State College at Jacksonville. He conducts independent study on the American conservative movement and foreign policy. When he is...

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