ISTANBUL — Donald Trump has picked fights with most of America’s closest allies and upset the world with his visa suspension for seven Muslim-majority stories. He’s also rattled sabers at North Korea and Iran. But for Turkey, a NATO ally on the front lines of the fight against ISIS, his biggest offense may be that he hasn’t bothered to call.
If and when he does, he’ll have a lot to discuss with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s strongman president, for Trump has made destruction of the so-called Islamic State terror group his top national security goal, and Turkey has troops on the ground in Syria fighting ISIS. But the areas of disagreement are growing.
Erdogan vehemently opposes the term “radical Islamic terrorism” that Trump uses regularly. The indefinite ban on Syrian refugees announced Jan. 27 shocked Turks, who now host three million Syrians. The recent delivery of armored personnel carriers to northern Syria to benefit Kurdish forces fighting ISIS is viewed as a threat to Turkey’s security.
But Erdogan has held his tongue.
Whenever the call comes, and Erdogan spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said Saturday it could be any day, Turkey clearly isn’t high on Trump’s dance card.
This comes as a surprise to some, since both sides had earlier signaled a desire to repair the rift that opened between the two countries under the Obama administration.
Just after Trump’s victory, Ret. Gen. Michael Flynn, who’s now National Security Adviser, called for removing Fetullah Gülen, a retired cleric whom Erdogan blames for an abortive coup last summer, from his refuge in Pennsylvania’s Poconos mountains. And Erdogan sent his foreign minister to Trump’s Inauguration, where he met Flynn and other members of Trump’s national security team.
But starting with Trump’s Inaugural address, in which he pledged to eradicate “radical Islamic terrorism…from the face of the Earth,” his real intentions have come into question in majority Muslim nations, especially secular states like Turkey, which take umbrage at his rhetoric.
When German Chancellor Angela Merkel used a more nuanced phrase than Trump in Ankara on Thursday, referring to “the fight against Islamist terrorism,” Erdogan rebuked her publicly.
“The ‘Islamist terror’ expression gravely saddens us as Muslims,” he said. “Such an expression cannot be used. It is not right because Islam and terror don’t go side by side. Islam literally means peace.”
Turks were infuriated by the Jan. 27 executive order blocking all refugees for four months, Syrian refugees indefinitely, and refugees from six other Muslim majority countries for three months.
“All of the countries…on the list are crisis spots in their region and face systematic slaughter, massacres and violence, as well as human rights violations,” said Yasin Aktay, the deputy chairman of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party. “There’s only one word for those that shut their doors to people …fleeing such places and seeking shelter. That word is ‘racist,’” he said.
Then there was Trump’s Jan. 28 executive order instructing the Pentagon to produce a plan within 30 days to destroy ISIS.
It’s hard to imagine stepped-up U.S. military operation in Syria that don’t make use of Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base and its logistics and support. Turkey also is the only U.S. ally that currently has ground troops in Syria who are now attempting to capture the city of al Bab from ISIS. It has lost 56 soldiers so far.
But there was no sign Trump consulted anyone knowledgeable before signing the order.
Trump justified the move by saying that ISIS was “complicit” in attacks abroad in which Americans died such as in Paris, Nice and Brussels. But he omitted mention of Turkey, which sustained seven ISIS attacks that left 300 people dead.
ISIS assaults are but one layer in Turkey’s continuing security crisis. After an ISIS attack on an Istanbul nightclub before dawn on New Year’s Day, Turkish police arrested dozens of central Asian suspects in Istanbul. This past weekend, police detained 820 people all around Turkey, mostly foreign nationals, on suspicion of ISIS ties. But Turkey also has been under terror attack by offshoots of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party or PKK, which Turkey is fighting in the southeast of the country. And it’s still recovering from an abortive coup attempt last July which Erdogan blames on Gülen.
Erdogan’s and Trump’s positions should overlap in many areas but they divide at crucial points. Both view Iran’s expansionist role as destabilizing the entire Middle East. Turkey is concerned about Iran’s growing control over much of Syria through its dispatch of its own forces and Shiite militias from as far away as Afghanistan, while Trump has even suggested that in the fight against ISIS, he might work with the Assad regime in Syria which Iran is sustaining in power.
In his first two weeks in office, Trump has imposed new sanctions following Iran’s ballistic missile tests and sent a destroyer into the Red Sea after Houthi rebels, reputedly backed by Iran, attacked a Saudi frigate.
Both leaders have made overtures to Russia, which helped turn the tide of the Syrian war through an air intervention against rebel forces that began in September 2015. Erdogan turned to Russian leader Vladimir Putin in desperation after giving up on working with the Obama administration, and the two leaders announced a cease-fire, which has been widely violated since it began Dec. 30. Trump has said he sees Putin as a potential partner in the war against ISIS, belying the fact that Russia has consistently been bombing civilian targets and moderate rebel forces while claiming to be attacking ISIS.
How they will sort out this tangle of contradictions remains to be seen.
Erdogan and Trump both say they are determined to wipe out terrorism, but Erdogan’s definition of the threat is a lot broader, taking in the PKK and Gülen as well as ISIS, while Trump has yet to explain what he really means by “radical Islamic terrorism.”
Take the Muslim Brotherhood, the sole opposition in much of the Arab world to secular socialist leaders like Syria’s Assad dynasty, but widely viewed as the incubator for political Islam, including terror movements such as al Qaeda.
Trump is under political pressure to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terror group, which would deeply upset Erdogan, whose Justice and Development party is spiritually close to the Brotherhood. Erdogan openly backed Brotherhood member Mohamed Morsi after he was elected president of Egypt in 2012 and sharply criticized his overthrow the following year in a military coup.
Moving forward, Trump seems unlikely to come down on Erdogan’s side, judging from his telephone log. Just three days after his Inauguration, Trump called Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al Sisi, the general who led the coup.
One of the thorniest issues between the U.S. and Turkey is the next steps in the battle against ISIS.
After the fall of Mosul, Iraq, to ISIS in June 2014, President Obama at first paid little attention to ISIS’s role in Syria, even though the terror group had declared its capital in Raqqa, eastern Syria, about 60 miles south of the Turkish border. Over strong Turkish opposition, the U.S. sent military aid to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which dominate much of northeastern Syria. Turkey objected that the YPG is the Syrian branch of the PKK.
The U.S. provided air support and weapons as Kurds defended the town of Kobani from ISIS in the autumn of 2014, and then sent in U.S. special operations forces, who now total somewhat less than 500 personnel. The YPG moved on to seize major mostly Arab towns from ISIS control, first Tel Abyad in June 2015 and most recently Manbij last August.
As President Obama prepared to leave office, he ordered a step-up in operations to take Raqqa, utilizing the YPG and a grouping of Arab fighters under its command, called the Syrian Democratic Forces or SDF, as its ground force. On the recommendation of the U.S. military, Obama approved the shipment of armored personnel carriers into Kurdish-controlled northern Syria, which arrived after Trump took office. A lot more arms appear to be in the pipeline.
Erdogan has repeatedly denounced U.S. military aid to the YPG as support for a terrorist group with which Turkey is at war. Last August, Turkey sent its own troops into Syria, first capturing the border town of Jarablus, and then moving towards Al Bab, and Erdogan offered to send Turkish forces in a combined operation to oust ISIS from Raqqa.
But Turkey’s plan is in three steps. First is to oust ISIS from Al Bab, where its forces have been bogged down and are now in a race with Syrian government forces to capture the city center. Then, according to Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, Turkish forces will move to Manbij to take control of the city now under YPG control, after which they will move to Raqqa.
The U.S. has not been on board with Turkey’s plan to take Manbij. “I don’t expect Turks to have a role there,” Col. John Thomas, spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, told The Daily Beast last month.
If Trump is determined to crush ISIS fast, agreement with Turkey on strategy may be out of reach, but it’s hard to see how the U.S. can proceed without Turkish support.
Another major issue is the fate of Gülen. Obama repeatedly rebuffed Erdogan’s demand to extradite Gülen to face charges that he directed the failed coup last July. Turkey last month sent more documentation to Washington backing up its case, but the U.S. up to now has said this is a decision for U.S. courts to make. Gulen himself has denied playing any role in the coup attempt.
Writing in The Hill on the day after Trump’s election victory, Flynn called Gülen a “radical Islamist” and compared him to Ayatollah Khomeini, the cleric who spearheaded Iran’s Islamic revolution in 1979. The Gülen movement fits “the description of a dangerous sleeper terror network,” Flynn wrote. “We need to adjust our foreign policy to recognize Turkey as a priority.”
“The forces of radical Islam derive their ideology from radical clerics like Gülen, who is running a scam,” wrote Flynn. “We should not provide him safe haven. In this crisis, it is imperative that we remember who our real friends are.”
Now the question is whether Trump will follow Flynn’s advice.
Then there’s the matter of a “safe zone” inside Syria, which Trump said he “absolutely” will set up so that Syrians fleeing the barrel bombing and missiles of the Syrian regime can find safe refuge inside their won country.
Turkey has long advocated such a zone, but Obama declined to provide military support. The main reason, Turkish officials say, was Iran’s threat that it will send in its own Basij paramilitaries to fight any force trying to protect the safe areas. Turkey, though a powerful regional player, was unwilling to take on Iran, its current major rival, without U.S. support.
Now, by virtue of its intervention in Jarablus and Al Bab, Turkey has begun carving out a safe zone. But the mystery is what Trump has in mind. Some here fear that the safe zone will be on territory conquered by the YPG with U.S. air support. And it’s hard to see how planning on safe zones can proceed without major input from Turkey. But that’s where things appear to stand.
Meanwhile, Erdogan waits for Trump’s call.