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Ankara cautiously optimistic about a Trump Administration

By Nick Ashdown | The Media Line

January 26, 2017

Turkey's President RecepTayyip Erdogan addresses his supporters . (Photo: Gokhan Tan/Getty Images)
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ISTANBUL – There’s both hope and trepidation in Ankara about the Trump Administration as relations between Turkey and the United States have reached a dangerously low point.

“A bit [of a crisis] would be an underestimation,” says Kemal Kirişci, director of the Turkey Project at the Brookings Institution, describing the current state of relations.

The deterioration is mostly due to two issues. The first is American support for the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian Kurdish militant group and offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union.

The second issue is Washington’s perceived sheltering of Fethullah Gülen, an American resident and leader of a global Islamic movement who Ankara accuses of having organized the failed military coup last summer.

“There’s hope in Ankara that the new administration will be an opportunity to reset the relationship,” says Sinan Ülgen, chairman of the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM) and a former Turkish diplomat.

The fact that Ankara has expanded its fight against ISIS, which President Trump has vowed to destroy, could lead to increased cooperation.

“This effective fight against the Islamic State will provide an opportunity to get additional US support, given the centrality of the fight in Trump’s foreign policy thinking,” Ülgen tells the Media Line.

However, Trump has also said he plans on supporting “Kurdish fighters” against ISIS, without clarifying if he means the PYD or another group such as the Peshmerga forces of the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government.

“I think there’s a good chance the Pentagon will continue its partnership with the Kurds in Syria, with the PYD,” Ömer Taşpınar, professor at the National War College and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, tells the Media Line.

“Especially in the first 100 days, the new administration under Trump wants to have a significant victory in Syria, like the conquest of Raqqa,” ISIS’s de facto capital. “If they march on Raqqa I think there’s zero chance they will do so without the Kurds.”

Officials in Ankara are particularly optimistic that the Trump Administration will take legal action against Gülen. Trump’s National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, whose consulting firm allegedly received money from a company close to the Turkish government, has recommended that Washington extradites Gülen.

“On the Gülen issue, there’s an expectation that a Trump Administration would be more amenable to meet Turkey’s demands,” Ülgen says. “The expectation is that the US will at least initiate the judicial review so that we can claim a formal procedure for the extradition of Gülen has started.”

But Taşpınar says extradition remains unlikely because Ankara has presented no concrete evidence directly implicating him in the coup attempt.

“Absent a trail of evidence, it would be very difficult for a court to extradite him,” Taşpınar says. “I think what [Washington] should do is to basically tell the Turks they need a smoking gun. They need much clearer evidence, which is not there yet.”

Furthermore, Turkey is facing serious accusations from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch of torture and other major human rights abuses during the post-failed coup purges, which makes Gülen’s extradition even less likely.

“Turkey right now is not projecting the image of a country to where you can extradite someone,” Kirişci says.

There’s also worry that the Trump Administration may be less concerned with human rights violations in Turkey and elsewhere than previous administrations.

“Trump wouldn’t really care much about the democratic decline or human rights violations,” says Ezgi Başaran, a Turkish journalist and academic visitor at Oxford University. “The lead that Trump would give to these strongmen [in Turkey and elsewhere] is the worst part. That really scares me.”
“From the things Trump says and does, I can’t help but get the impression he’s not a man of established customs and practices. He doesn’t seem to have much care for them,” Kirişci says.
Another concern about Trump is the opaqueness regarding the details of his policies.

“Do we have any idea how Trump will proceed in the Middle East? I don’t think anyone does,” Başaran says.

Taşpınar says the Trump Administration should be very worried over Turkey’s re-alignment away from its Western partners towards Russia and Eurasia.

“I used to think Turkey was bluffing on the Russian thing and that it’s basically trying to gain leverage with the West by flirting with Russia, but I think it’s more than flirting now. It’s bordering on realignment of strategic priorities, mainly because of the Kurdish question.”

Taşpınar says the most important issue facing Turkey is the Kurdish conflict, and that Washington needs to focus on this.

“There should be a US strategy prioritizing stronger military and diplomatic engagement with Turkey, but this should be conditional on improvement of Turkey’s relations with the Kurds, [and] on a peace process with the PKK,” he says.

“It’s certainly in the US interest that Turkey does so.”

Taşpınar says both Turkey and the US will likely remain firmly committed to NATO, and that Trump’s statements calling the alliance obsolete should be taken with a grain of salt.

“He says things because he’s impulsive and he wants to make a point but he doesn’t follow up with it, because he doesn’t really have a well-established, well-thought of policy, whereas the United States has decades of well-established policies on these kinds of strategic alliances,” Taşpınar says. “On the ground you will see that the United States will remain committed to Poland, will remain committed to the defense of the Baltic Republics.”

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