Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Washington to meet his US counterpart Donald Trump last week received significant coverage in both Turkish and international media outlets. It was the first time they had met face-to-face since Trump came into office in January. Because the visit took place at a time when several disagreements linger between the NATO allies, it was normal to see analysts predict possible outcomes.
Some cited the leaders’ body language and gestures during their meeting. Others focused on its duration (23 minutes). Some commented on Erdogan using an official armored car brought from Turkey to meet with Trump. Others referred to the brawl outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence in Washington, which left nine people injured.
There were expectations that the long-awaited meeting would help solve key issues between the two countries. It was unrealistic to expect a miracle; no magic formula was on the table. As the two countries’ disagreements and red lines were well known beforehand, it was clear that bilateral relations were unlikely to enter a new phase soon.
But the meeting was crucial as it provided a chance for both sides to once again highlight their concerns over current developments in the region and discuss areas of cooperation. It was an interesting meeting in many aspects, one whose impact on bilateral relation was difficult to predict. For now, its tangible outcome was to overcome tensions that existed during the presidency of Barack Obama. I believe this was the main purpose of the visit.
One of the most important points of disagreement between Ankara and Washington is the Pentagon’s decision to arm the Democratic Union Party’s (PYD) armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is affiliated to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). While Ankara regards the YPG as an extension of a terrorist organization, the US considers it an effective partner on the ground in the fight against Daesh.
Turkey believes the US insistence on staying allied with the YPG is due to the presence of officials from the Obama administration. Ankara failed to convince Washington about the YPG, but it requested that the Trump administration remove those who ignore Turkish concerns and support the PKK and YPG.
The Turkish president’s visit to Washington showed that he and Trump agreed to disagree for the time being, while focusing on areas of cooperation not limited to politics. Turkey is likely to pursue this policy not only with the US but also with other countries.
“We told them (the Trump administration) — without giving names — that those (in the administration) who stay in their positions may affect our relationship,” said Turkey’s foreign minister. Turkey has repeatedly said it will not be part of the Raqqa operation if it includes the YPG. The US stance indicates that despite Turkey’s strong objection, it will carry out the operation alongside the YPG.
Nonetheless, “the US will be knocking at Turkey’s door” regarding the upcoming moves in Syria, “because it is out of the question to exclude Turkey from the Syria table,” said Erdogan. Turkey “will be both at the table and on the ground in Syria.” Turkey cannot be indifferent to developments next to its border. It knows that the way to have a seat at the table is by having a presence on the ground.
So now we wait to see how words spoken at the table will work on the ground. The coming days will show how the two countries will act in Syria now that they know each other’s red lines. Turkey, as a NATO ally, will continue to be an important partner for the US in the region despite the ups and downs in their relationship.
Erdogan’s visit to Washington showed that he and Trump agreed to disagree for the time being, while focusing on areas of cooperation not limited to politics. Turkey is likely to pursue this policy not only with the US but also with other countries.
Before visiting the US, Erdogan visited Russia (cementing bilateral ties after a serious crisis), India and China — all significant visits that aim to increase Turkey’s involvement in the international arena. The next stop is Brussels, where the NATO Summit will be held.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes mainly in issues regarding Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. She can be reached on Twitter @SinemCngz.