The scheduled meeting on May 16 between U.S. President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is already being criticized as another example of the Trump Administration’s affinity for “dictator diplomacy”. But the criticisms based on a lack of shared values miss the point: it’s our strategic differences with Turkey, specifically over the role of the Kurds, that should be dampening expectations.
Al-Monitor summarizes the difficulties plaguing the relationship ahead of the summit:
Soon after Turkish air force jets carried out a wave of airstrikes against Kurdish targets in northeastern Syria and northwestern Iraq on April 25, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu spoke with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson over the phone. The reported tone of the conversation speaks volumes about the new low in Turkish-American relations[…]
According to three separate sources familiar with the details of the exchange, it went horribly. Cavusoglu’s shrilly defensive explanation of why Turkey had ignored US calls to back off and bombed the headquarters of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) on Mount Karachok, killing 28 militants and endangering US special operations forces’ lives, didn’t cut any ice. One of the sources told Al-Monitor on condition of strict anonymity, “At one stage in the conversation Tillerson was kind of like saying ‘OK, whatever, you go your way, we will go ours.’” [….]
The head of the Turkish Armed Forces, Gen. Hulusi Akar, is also expected to hold talks in Washington before Erdogan’s arrival, presumably to persuade Pentagon officials to accept Turkey’s offer to partner with US forces in the long-planned operation to capture Raqqa, Al-Monitor has learned.
Stiffing the Kurds and backing Turkey would be the traditional diplomatic move here—it’s not for nothing the Kurds say they have “no friends but the mountains.” But that seems to not be in the cards this time, or at least not for now. The Wall Street Journal:
It’s rare for American forces in the Middle East to fly the Stars and Stripes from their armored vehicles. Usually they try to blend in, with special-operations troops often going as far as donning local uniforms.
But now, part of the U.S. mission in northern Syria is to literally show the American flag. The goal is to forestall attacks by America’s NATO ally Turkey on America’s key partner in the fight against Islamic State, the main Syrian Kurdish militia known as YPG.
In an unusual alignment, Russia is also flying its flag, with small, highly visible units deployed in the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin. Russia and the Syrian regime have increasingly collaborated with the YPG and—like the U.S.—publicized recent deployments, aiming to deter Turkey.
No effort will be spared to make Erdogan’s visit look congenial. But no one should have any illusions on the matter either: the issues dividing the longtime NATO allies are profound.