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Washington’s Turkey Experts Predict A Rocky Road ahead for U.S.-Turkey Relations

Photo:  BPC Report

Turkey experts Nicholas Danforth and Blaise Misztal spoke to WashingtonHattı about what to expect from the relationship between President Trump and President Erdogan. Danforth and Misztal are Turkey experts working at the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), one of the leading think tanks in Washington, DC. BPC’s “Turkey Task Force” consists some of prominent and respected Turkey experts when it comes to Turkey related issues in Washington, DC.

BPC’s latest report in early December, 2016, warned the new Trump administration that “U.S. and Turkish interests have increasingly parted ways” and advised White House to stop appeasing Mr. Erdogan. Below, Danforth and Misztal answers:

What are your expectations from U.S. – Turkey relations during Trump years?

Nicholas Danforth: I was surprised actually that people in Turkey were as optimistic about Trump as they were. I’m interested to see how long that optimism can be maintained.

Danforth: Problems are structural, won’t disappear with Trump

My suspicion would be that policies that are obviously important to the Turkish government, such as Gülen’s extradition and the US’ support for the YPG, are just structural factors that are going to prevent Trump from changing policies quickly or as dramatically as people in Turkey would hope. Even if Trump tries to bend the laws in order to extradite Gülen, that’s not something he can do single handedly. As far as the YGP goes – there is a clear and enormous pressure within the administration in the current White House to defeat ISIS as quickly and dramatically as possible. Right now, the simplest and quickest way to do that is by arming the YPG to take Raqqa. I don’t see the structural factors that have caused tension between the governments changing, and at the same time, I think both Trump and Erdoğan have similar political and rhetorical styles in saying things to get a reaction. Erdoğan is going to say things that are going to antagonize people in the US, and Trump is going to say things that are going to antagonize people in Turkey. In addition to structural factors, there will be much more political and rhetorical tension going forward. I’m curious to see how long the current optimism in Turkey can last – I suspect it won’t last for much longer.

Mitzsal: All the substantive ways that Turkey disagrees with the US are likely to remain

Blaise Misztal: There was a wide chasm that emerged between Turkey and US in 2012- 2013, with the US’ decision not to get involved in the Syrian Civil War or not to commit to forceful ouster of Assad and not to back Turkey’s plan for what to do next in Syria. I don’t see how that is going to change with this administration – if anything, the Trump administration will be even more reticent to commit significant US resources to change the political leadership of Syria. If there is optimism among the AKP for a better relationship with Trump then with Obama, then they are really misdiagnosing the problem and misinterpreting Trump’s statements. An increasing willingness by Trump to go after ISIS does not translate into going beyond Raqqa and Syria. If indeed Trump is looking to quickly hit ISIS, then he is actually more likely to keep the current policy of working with the YPG, because that is the partner the US currently knows. All the substantive ways that Turkey disagrees with the US is likely to remain. To the extent that Erdoğan and AKP see that Trump has been less concerned about the direction of Turkish governance, the erosion of democracy and rule of law, or the violation of freedom of press, they are right. But I don’t think that has been the main driver of the US policy on views of Turkey anyway. While the Obama administration sometimes felt compelled to complain about those things, it didn’t adopt policies that differed for Turkey. Trump might just be willing to tolerate authoritarianism in Turkey, however this isn’t going to change policy on the YPG, Assad or on other things he cares about.

Misztal: A rocky road ahead for US-Turkey relations.

Mitzsal: In fact, it is more likely that an even bigger ideological wedge will form when it comes to the question of Islamism and Islam. I think that Obama was very willing to tolerate the AKP’s religious views and willingness to work with organizations like Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. I don’t expect that Trump will be as tolerant. So the issues that have been problematic are likely to remain, and new issues may very well emerge. This is going to continue to be a rocky road for US-Turkey relations.

 

Question : Do you have any ideas about what would be the Trump administration’s rhetoric will be on human rights issues? Will there be any statements, etc?

Misztal: I think this administration will use human rights as an argument against Islamism as we already seen in the executive order, which is saying that we should not let people in who do not believe in the Constitution, or who have done female genital mutilation, or believe in Sharia law. If the Trump’s administration decides to go after the Brotherhood’s presence in Turkey or the perceived Islamism of the AKP, they could say look at the decline of women’s right in Turkey and look at the rise of domestic violence.

Misztal: Trump adm. may use human rights as an argument to get to the question of Islamism

Mitzsal: This is the result of the backwardness, misogynist view of Islam that the AKP is promoting. So you can see human rights used as an argument to get to the question of Islamism. But I don’t think that the Trump administration is going to raise the argument about the rule of law or the freedom of media. The administration may use human rights to extract religion from the Middle East’s public sphere.

Danforth: What can Erdogan give Trump?

Nicholas Danforth: Many of the AKP journalists, like Erdoğan, were saying between the lines that Trump’s campaign rhetoric was going to change eventually. That might be the case if Turkey can do something for Trump. But I don’t think there is anything Trump wants that Turkey can give him right now. For example, Trump wants Raqqa, but to have over Raqqa, first Turkey needs to get al Bab. And, Turkey is having difficulty in taking al Bab. Also, Trump’s plan is to make a deal, not “let me give you something because you are my ally.” What can Turkey give Trump? For example, Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu wrote that op-ed in the Washington Post telling the Trump administration “here are the things you can do for us.” And there might be a lot of people in Washington who thought that those were fair requests. But they still need to offer something in exchange.

Interview: ilhan tanir

Translations: Melike Gül Demir, Öznur Kaya

Editor: Leyla Magdalena Amur

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