Turkey’s president slams the US, so why does Trump take his calls?

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was one of the first to try to exploit the recent protests in the US, echoing comments of Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

In recent years, Turkey has accused the US of “training terrorists,” has worked with the anti-American Venezuelan regime of Nicolás Maduro, detained a US pastor, bashed US President Donald Trump’s policy on Jerusalem, detained US journalists and worked with Iran and Russia.Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was one of the first to try to exploit the recent protests in the US, echoing comments of Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he hinted that Turkey stands against the “unjust order” of the US role in the world. Yet, on June 8, Trump spoke with Turkey’s president about cooperation in Libya and Syria and listened as Erdogan claimed the US-based “Antifa” movement is linked to leftist Kurdish forces in Syria, the same forces the US works with to defeat ISIS.

Turkish media has played up the close relations between Trump and the Turkish president. Trump appears to speak to Turkey’s Erdogan more than any other world leader, despite the constant criticism Turkey levels at the US and Turkey’s work with US adversaries.In December 2018, Anadolu news agency in Turkey said the US would leave Syria after a conversation between the presidents. According to readouts from Anadolu news, the two leaders also spoke in November 2016, April, June, September and November 2017, April 2018, June 2018, October 2018, three times in November 2018, December 2018, January 2018, twice in January and then in February 2019, September 2019, February 15 and February 28, 2020, and June 8, 2020.There doesn’t seem to be any parallel in the world for the constant conversations between Erdogan and Trump, and yet, Turkey is one of the most hostile countries to US policy in the world and Turkey works with Hamas against Israel, a key US ally.While Turkey’s officials constantly bash the US, attacking the US for suppressing press freedom, US officials appear to have orders to never critique Turkey in response. Turkey’s president has become the foreign leader that Trump appears to speak to the most on a variety of issues. This, despite the fact that Turkey had threatened US troops last year in Syria and ordered the US to leave Syria and abandon US partners who were fighting ISIS.Twice, the White House has spoken with Erdogan and then decided to reverse five years of successful operations in Syria and walk away from partners. It is unclear why Turkey’s ruling party has such influence with the highest levels of the current administration.

On June 3, after Turkey slammed the US for attacks on journalists during recent protests, the US Ambassador to Ankara went on Turkish government TV and agreed with the critique of the US. Turkey’s TRT World news put up an image of the US Embassy in Turkey, noting that ambassador David Satterfield had spoken with Turkey’s Presidential Communications Director Fahrettin Altun about the “mistreatment of journalists” and that he had agreed with the Turkish leaders that “press freedom is a backbone of democracy.”
According to Amnesty International, Turkey is the world’s largest prison for journalists, but while Turkish officials bash the US for abusing press freedom, the US officials in Ankara never critique press abuses.Turkey’s targeting of the US on the press freedom issue is unique because Turkish officials such as Altun never critique Iran, China or Russia as harshly as they slam the US, and they never critique Iran’s treatment of journalists. Only the US. Yet, when Turkey detained two more journalists on June 8, there was no comment from the US Embassy about “press freedom.”Turkey, which is buying Russian weapons, including the S-400 air defense systems, is now trying to sell Washington on a theory that it will confront Russia in Syria and Libya, even as Ankara works with Russia on joint patrols in Syria.For instance, the same Turkey that threatened to overrun US outposts in eastern Syria in October 2019, forcing the US to withdraw from the border, is the same Ankara that does joint patrols with the Russians. Ankara wouldn’t do joint patrols with the US, despite the US being a NATO ally. Ankara is uniquely hostile to the US, claiming the US supports “terrorists” in Syria. However, Ankara is not nearly as hostile to Russia, which supports the Assad regime in Syria.There is a lack of clarity on US policy toward Turkey. While the US Congress was outraged at the withdrawal in October 2019, watching some 200,000 Kurds who had helped the US fight ISIS forced to flee a Turkish invasion with harrowing images of Turkish-backed militants murdering civilians, there was no pushback from the White House. The US even had to launch a secret raid to kill ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October 2019 when he was found within walking distance of Turkey’s border and evidence emerged that ISIS members had transited Turkey.Similarly, the US has had to target al-Qaeda affiliates in Turkish-controlled Idlib in Syria. This wouldn’t be the first time a US ally has harbored extremists. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were accused of fostering anti-American extremism in the 1990s and early 2000s during the era that led up to 9/11. Saudi Arabia has reversed course now, although Pakistan appears to still work with extremists.WHEN IT comes to Ankara, there are only murmurs of critique of US policy. Former anti-ISIS envoy Brett McGurk was critical of Turkey’s role, but he left the US administration. One US official did write a memo condemning the October 2019 Turkish attack on eastern Syria as ethnic cleansing and war crimes. But other officials, led by US Syria envoy James Jeffrey, have consistently supported Ankara’s stance.This is largely because some Trump administration officials want to reverse Obama-era policies and view the US partnership with anti-ISIS fighters in eastern Syria, called the Syrian Democratic Forces, as an Obama policy. Among these US voices are those who believe Ankara might eventually aid US sanctions on Iran. Instead, Turkey recently reopened customs checks at a border with Iran, and Ankara and Iran both support Hamas.The Trump-Erdogan relationship is the bedrock of the current American policy. Turkey has benefited from this relationship but the US has rarely gotten what it wants in a change in Ankara’s rhetoric or policy. Because the Trump administration tends to take personal foreign relationships seriously, believing this is part of the “art of the deal” that Trump champions, Ankara has skillfully used supporters in Washington to seek out a personal connection.In May 2017, during the first Trump-Erdogan meeting, Turkish security attacked US protesters and police near the Turkish ambassador’s residence. There was tepid condemnation from US officials over the unprecedented assault on US soil, and later charges were quietly dismissed in May 2018 against the Turkish presidential security guards. In November 2019, Erdogan again came to Washington to meet Trump.Today, Ankara wants to exploit the US protests, both supporting them and also trying to pretend that US partners in Syria are linked to “Antifa.” In fact, it is US partners on the ground in Syria who have been the most successful fighters against ISIS.In the last weeks, they have been clearing ISIS cells throughout Syria. But Ankara will do whatever it can to sabotage those efforts, to try to stir chaos in eastern Syria and get the US to leave so that Ankara’s Russian and Iranian partners can move into eastern Syria. At the same time, Turkey is trying to tell the White House it can confront Russia in Libya and in Idlib.With the US wanting to reduce its role in the Middle East, outsourcing policy to Ankara has seemed like a good deal. It is similar to the deal with Israel which foresees Israel being given a free hand against Iran’s threats in southern Syria, while Turkey works northern Syria. Somewhere in the US administration there is a fantasy that this could all work together and shared Israeli-Turkish interests against Hezbollah, for instance, might even knit together what is a mostly toxic Israel-Turkey-US relationship.For now, Ankara continues to try to exploit the crisis in the US for its own benefit.