Turkish leaders are delighted to see Donald Trump win the U.S. presidential election in a sign of expectation that the Turkish-U.S. relations would free of tensions emanated from issues on democracy and human rights, topics that at times strained ties between the Obama administration and Ankara.
But there are still two points that could remain a source of ensuing friction even under new U.S. presidency: the issue of extradition of U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, and U.S. cooperation with Syrian Kurdish militia, People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria.
A day after Trump was announced president-elect with a clear-cut victory over her Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, a sense of relief took hold among Turkish authorities, reflecting Ankara’s anxiety toward the defeated Democratic candidate. Outgoing President Obama’s not-too-subtle distaste with the current leadership in Ankara was palpable recently as Turkey steered away from the Western camp, from once a model democracy in the region toward an authoritarian regime, especially since July 15 abortive coup.
Clinton’s unexpected loss was a much-needed boon to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who is accused of establishing a one-man rule after an unrelenting crackdown on political opponents of all sorts, and removing central pillars of the rule of law and separation of power since the failed coup.
Erdogan’s advisors did not feel the need to hide their disdain for the Democratic candidate whom they see as the champion of liberal internationalism that could create jitters in bilateral ties given Erdogan’s authoritarian turn.
On Wednesday, President Erdogan called U.S. President-elect Trump to congratulate him over his victory that nobody expected.
I congratulate @realDonaldTrump on being elected as the 45th President of the US and look forward to further strengthening our relations.
— Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (@RT_Erdogan) November 9, 2016
The Republican candidate’s ascent to White House reverberated beyond the borders of his country, sending encouraging messages to right-wing and populist leaders across the world.
Presidential sources said Erdogan and Trump discussed how to improve ties and cooperate against terrorism in the region. Turkey is a key regional actor in the fight against terrorism and its giant Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey is the home of the U.S.-led international coalition jets that regularly carry out air strikes against Islamic State targets in Syria.
Speaking to reporters in Ankara on Wednesday, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim briefly summed up Turkey’s expectations from the new American president: end of U.S. cooperation with Syrian Kurdish militia in Syria and extradition of cleric Gulen.
Turkey displayed exasperation and frustration over Washington’s refusal to extradite Gulen accused by Ankara of leading a coup attempt on July 15. Gulen who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since 1999 rejects any links to the attempted coup.
“I’m openly calling on the new president from here about the urgent extradition of Fethullah Gulen,” the prime minister said, revealing a matter of possible dispute that could strain relations even with new U.S. president. Yildirim said Gulen’s extradition, Turkey’s number one diplomatic priority, could mark the opening of a new era in relations.
Another potential point of crisis is the U.S. alignment of YPG, which is the leading force at front lines in the campaign to retake Raqqa, self-proclaimed capital of Islamic State, ISIS, caliphate. America sees YPG as an indispensable ally on the ground in Syria in the anti-ISIS campaign. But Ankara views the group as an extension of its domestic insurgent group, Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Both the U.S. and Turkey see PKK as a terrorist organization.
But observers say it is near impossible for the U.S. to cut its ties with the Kurdish militia at this delicate moment just to appease Ankara while YPG-led forces are pushing forward against Raqqa to crush ISIS’s biggest stronghold in Syria. How Trump will respond to Ankara’s longstanding demands remain to be seen.
Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) government and its supporters’ positive view of Trump who called for a ban on Muslims entering U.S. soil shaped by the Republican candidate’s remarks after July coup attempt. Trump praised Erdogan’s government for its efforts to push back the putschists and expressed his support for the Turkish government. Trump also suggested that Erdogan’s crackdown on the opposition is an internal matter.
Then after Erdogan and his loyal media began to portray Trump as a positive figure despite all the odds and differences that separate them. But more than that, it is Clinton’s perceived close relations with Gulen movement that constituted driving motive of Turkish leadership’s embrace of Trump. Regardless of the fact about that relationship, Turkish authorities at least believe that Clinton has a positive view of the movement and Gulen himself, and this factor then created a quandary for Ankara to maintain healthy relations with a would-be Clinton administration. With that option is dead, Ankara now eagerly looks forward to working with Trump.
In the brief phone conversation, Erdogan underlined that Turkey and the U.S. are allies that came together by mutual respect, common interests, and values. The Turkish president noted that Trump’s electoral victory would lead to positive steps for the Middle East, without elaborating how could that be.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu also congratulated Trump in his reaction to the election result.
We congratulate @realDonaldTrump, President-elect of the USA. We desire to reinforce with the USA our strategic cooperation based on trust.
— Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu (@MevlutCavusoglu) November 9, 2016
He, too, expressed his expectation about positive steps by the U.S. without any delay on issue of Gulen’s extradition.
Trump’s isolationist and anti-NATO views are known in Ankara and welcomed by the government which wants free-riding in its regional policy without facing criticism from Washington or Western allies. But how Trump’s America-first approach would translate into the U.S. Middle East policy and cooperation with allies remains a matter of mystery now.
“The reason why Turks mainly see Trump’s victory as an encouraging sign is due to the hope that the new president will bring a breath of fresh air to bilateral ties,” Daily Sabah, Erdogan’s mouthpiece paper, said in an editorial on Wednesday.
Erdogan administration, however, embraces Trump’s foreign policy view that excludes moral issues and sees international politics just as business relations among states. Trump already made sure that he would get along with authoritarian regimes, and Turkey’s break with liberal democracy would not be a problem for the new president in Washington. So Turkish leaders think.