Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had an important meeting with US President Donald Trump on May 16. The pro-government media in Turkey applauded the meeting, held in Washington, as one of the most fruitful with the US — while the opposition tried to portray it as a catastrophe. The truth is somewhere in the middle.
The leaders’ statements and their body language at the joint press conference after the tete-a-tete suggested that the talks did not take place in a confrontational atmosphere. This has to be perceived as the most successful part of the entire exercise.
There were several important issues on the agenda. The first and foremost was the US supply of heavy weapons to the fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the military branch of the strongest Kurdish political party in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). Trump signed the authorization for the supply a few days before Erdogan’s visit, probably to reach the point of no return before the talks. On this sensitive issue, Trump may have repeated to Erdogan what US officials earlier told their Turkish counterparts, namely that they will watch that these weapons do not end up in the hands of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorists with whom Turkey has been at war for more than 30 years. How this promise could be fulfilled is another subject, because the YPG and the PKK are so closely linked that one cannot be distinguished easily from the other.
Another subject was the Turkish-US cooperation for retaking Raqqa, the de facto capital of Daesh. Turkey was insistently voicing its concern that, in fighting Daesh, the US should not cooperate with the YPG, which it considers the Syrian extension of the PKK. Erdogan repeatedly said before his meeting with Trump that the US has to decide whether it wants to cooperate with a NATO ally or a terrorist organization.
Trump may have told Erdogan that once Raqqa is retaken, the YPG will withdraw and the administration of the city will be handed over to the Arabs, the original inhabitants of the city. It remains to be seen how realistic it is to expect the YPG to withdraw after having fought a fierce enemy like Daesh.
A subject connected with this is Turkey’s fight against the PKK, which is on the US list of terrorist organizations. The US promises to provide intelligence to help Turkey fight the PKK, but it has never been real-time intelligence, and therefore is of limited use.
The leaders’ body language after the May 16 meeting suggests their 22-minute tete-a-tete was not confrontational — which has to be perceived as the most successful part of the entire exercise.
The third issue was the request to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric living in the US whom Turkish authorities believe is the mastermind of the failed military coup of July 16, 2016. Trump may have responded that he will look into the matter with due diligence, but that the issue is in the hands of the American judiciary.
On a related issue, the White House issued a statement saying that “President Trump raised the incarceration of Pastor Andrew Brunson and asked that the Turkish government expeditiously return him to the United States.” Neither Trump nor Erdogan mentioned this subject during the press conference. The pastor was detained on Oct. 5, 2016 on charges of missionary activities “against national security (of Turkey).” On Dec. 11, he was moved to a counterterrorism center and charged with membership of “an armed terrorist organization,” a pro forma accusation frequently used for the membership of the Gulenist movement. On May 24, a new charge was added to this, that the pastor blessed the fighters of the YPG in Syria in Kurdish language. We will see whether this is a preparation as a “quid pro quo” for Gulen’s extradition.
Erdogan’s meeting with Trump lasted 22 minutes. Since the talks were held through translators, each leader had about 10 minutes to exchange views on the above subjects.
The message conveyed to the media was positive. Each leader allocated part of his address to the praise of the other side. Trump emphasized Turkish-American cooperation in the Korean War 67 years ago. Erdogan congratulated Trump for his outstanding victory in the presidential elections.
Yet the visit was overshadowed by two incidents: Trump’s sacking of FBI Director James Comey, and violent demonstrations in front of the Turkish Embassy in Washington.
There was little concrete content in the talks, but the outcome has to be congratulated as it did not damage relations. The task of adding more substance to what was said is now left to the diplomats.
• Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).