US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin were quick to congratulate Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over his recent referendum victory, which effectively makes him Turkey’s sole ruler.
Putin’s call was expected, but Trump’s reaching out to Erdogan in this manner caught many by surprise. Trump’s call also came just as Erdogan was bracing for criticism from European leaders regarding the manner in which he is consolidating his authoritarian rule. In the end, Trump was the only Western leader to call and congratulate Erdogan.
Despite the noncommittal positions of White House and State Department spokesmen regarding the results of the referendum, Erdogan got what he wanted from Washington with Trump's call, including an invitation to the White House, where he is expected May 16-17.
Before that, Erdogan will meet Putin in Sochi, Russia, on May 3. The Turkish side is keen to underline that this invitation, like the one from Washington, also came from the other side. Erdogan no doubt feels vindicated given that the leaders of the two superpowers that really count are standing by him.
Trump’s support will also provide an added boost for Erdogan when he meets European leaders in Brussels at the end of May during the NATO summit.
Erdogan, Trump and Putin share common traits, which undoubtedly feed their feelings of affinity toward one another. All three are diplomatically unorthodox populists who are outspoken in their views. All three are impulsive and equally disliked internationally.
This, however, doesn’t portend a three-way match made in heaven.
Erdogan may empathize with Trump and Putin, but the United States and Russia have clashing interests that leave him caught in the middle of the regional and global rivalry between the two superpowers. If he veers too much to one side, he risks alienating the other.
In addition to this, Ankara’s own regional agenda is not necessarily in line with either Washington's or Moscow’s. Nowhere is this dichotomy more apparent than in Syria.
Tellingly, the White House readout of Trump’s call to Erdogan and Moscow’s statement regarding Erdogan’s upcoming meeting with Putin underlined Syria as the main topic of discussion between the sides.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Ankara at the end of March was said to have been unsuccessful because of this issue. The sides failed to bridge their differences over US support for the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military branch, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara says are both Kurdish terrorist organizations.
During his visit, Tillerson also reiterated that fighting the Islamic State (IS) — not taking out Assad — was the US priority. Ankara by that stage had toned down its call for Assad to be ousted. Nevertheless, Tillerson’s remarks combined with Washington’s determination to work with the PYD for the liberation of Raqqa grated on Turkish nerves.
Tillerson’s visit, however, took place before the US strike on Syria’s Shayrat air base in response to the chemical attack on Idlib, which was blamed on Assad. Erdogan warmly welcomed the strike. Given the U-turn on the part of Trump that this represented, it also reignited Ankara’s hopes that Washington may prioritize the toppling of Assad.
Turkey’s hopes of convincing the United States to end its cooperation with the PYD/YPG also increased.
"The way President Trump is approaching these matters makes us happy. US and Turkey as allies ... we can resolve significant problems," Erdogan told CNN International’s Becky Anderson in a post-referendum interview.
Other problems Erdogan is hoping to resolve with Trump include the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, the Islamic preacher residing in Pennsylvania whom Erdogan blames for masterminding last year’s failed coup attempt against him.
Ankara also wants the release by the United States of Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab, and Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a vice chairman of the state-owned Turkish Halkbank. Both are standing trial in the United States, accused of conspiring to violate US sanctions on Iran to the tune of billions of dollars.
But there are no signs to support Erdogan’s expectation from Washington, and his hopes could prove to be misplaced again.
Some argue, however, that Erdogan is not in as weak of a position as many assume he is in with regard to Trump.
“Trump is accused of launching strikes against the Assad regime without a broad strategy as to what comes next. It is clear he will need to work with regional allies as he tries to unfold this strategy,” said a Western diplomat speaking to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity due to his sensitive position.
“He has reached out to King Salman [of Saudi Arabia], [Egyptian President Abdel Fattah] al-Sisi and King Abdullah [of Jordan]. He also needs to work with Erdogan, given Turkey’s strategic position,” he added.
Huseyin Bagci, who lectures in international relations at Ankara’s Middle Eastern Technical University, also underlines the fact that Turkey “has colossal geopolitical and economic importance.”
“This means that whoever is interested in this region cannot pursue these without Turkey’s cooperation, regardless of who is leading the country,” Bagci told Al-Monitor.
This applies to Russia, too, but Erdogan has to also tread cautiously not to alienate Putin, given Turkey’s economic dependence on Russia. Ankara is also engaged in strategic energy deals with Russia and is also negotiating the purchase of Russian S-400 missiles.
These topics are expected to be on the agenda of the Erdogan-Putin meeting in Sochi.
Still, there are signs that some of the luster in Ankara’s ties with Moscow may have been lost due to Turkey’s support for Washington’s position in Syria after the gas attack on Idlib. Russia’s response to the way Turkey welcomed the US strike against the Shayrat base was low key, but Moscow was undoubtedly displeased.
Moscow also could not have been too happy over Turkey’s reviving of its call for Assad to be removed. Nevertheless, Russia is unlikely to turn against Turkey for economic and geopolitical reasons that cut both ways.
A complicating factor for Erdogan as he tries to develop ties with Trump and Putin is the convergence of views between Washington and Moscow on issues that are anathema to Ankara.
Both the United States and Russia support the PYD, both have said the Kurds have to be represented in Syrian peace talks and neither power is averse to cultural autonomy for the Syrian Kurds.
The question is whether Erdogan can rely on his ties with Trump and Putin to serve Turkey’s maximum interests.
Professor Ilter Turan of Istanbul’s Bilgi University said all three may appear to be birds of a feather, but there are differences in their positions.
“Putin inherited the institutional structure of the Soviet Union and is pushing for Russia’s interests according to this. Trump is also operating under the institutional setup in the US and is pushing for America’s interests accordingly,” Turan told Al-Monitor.
“Erdogan, however, is dismantling Turkey’s established institutional structure and replacing it with his own institutions. With advice from advisers who are clearly not apprised of international realities, he is pushing his own interests, which he mistakes for Turkey’s interests,” Turan said.
The bottom line, according to Turan, is that although appearing to curry favor with Erdogan, neither Trump nor Putin have done what Erdogan wants. “They are ultimately out to secure their countries' interests, not his,” Turan said.
So can Erdogan juggle Trump and Putin to serve Turkey’s best interests?
“He can if he stops playing checkers and learns to play chess,” the Western diplomat said.
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