By Audrey Williams
There is still a week until President-Elect Trump is inaugurated as so-called leader of the free world, and one of the U.S.’s most strategic alliances has already descended into a series Twitter feuds.
U.S.-Turkish relations have fallen hard and fast from the rosy days of President Obama’s first term, when Turkey was praised as a “model democracy” for the Muslim world and President Erdoğan was feted at the White House.
A series of disagreements and grievances between the two have now put relations at a point where even a few simple tweets can rile bad blood.
In a January 5th tweet, the U.S. Embassy in Ankara Twitter account posted a picture of then-U.S. President Nixon with Turkey’s then-Prime Minister Nihat Erim. “#tbt → Prime Minister Nihat Erim, President Nixon together with their wives at an official White House state dinner (1972)”, the tweet read.
What otherwise may have been a harmless “throwback” commemorating the history of U.S.-Turkey relations instead fell victim to what was admittedly a case of poor timing. Prime Minister Erim would be assassinated in 1980, after he had left office. The U.S. Embassy’s tweet came less than a month after Russia’s ambassador to Turkey, Andrey Karlov, was killed in Ankara.
The tweet prompted swift backlash in Turkey, with some interpreting it as a nefarious warning to Turkey that it could expect more political assassinations. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım called the tweet an act of “foolishness” (zevzeklik).
Following the uproar, an official from the U.S. Embassy told the Hürriyet Daily News that the intention behind the tweet was simply to “show multi-dimensional, deep and historical connections between the United States and Turkey”.
The following week, a new tweet caught even greater backlash from ordinary Turks and the Turkish government alike. On January 11, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) tweeted a statement from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in which the group affirmed that it is “not a part of the Kurdish [sic] Workers’ Party (PKK)”.
The SDF are regarded by the U.S. as the most capable fighting force against ISIS, and as such, they are a key U.S. partner in northern Syria. While the SDF is an umbrella organization including a variety of opposition groups, they are dominated by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish force that Turkey views as a terror organization and which experts say has organic links to the PKK.
A spokesperson of President Erdoğan replied to CENTCOM’s tweet with one of his own:
Tweets reflect larger issues
It may be easy to ignore or write off these social media spats, but they are symptoms of a much larger disease in U.S.-Turkey relations, one in which both sides have lost so much respect for each other that government officials and institutions in both countries are showing public disregard for the partnership between the two countries.
Much of this has to do with the fact that the Obama administration’s time is up. Ever since Trump was elected, the Turkish government has made it clear that it expects the Trump administration to be a more promising partner. As a public indication of these sentiments, President Erdoğan was quick to call Trump on November 9 to congratulate him on his election.
At the annual Ambassador’s Conference in Ankara, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu indicated that improved U.S.-Turkey relations under Trump depend on two issues: the halting of U.S. support for the YPG, and the extradition of Fethullah Gülen.
For Turkey, the YPG and the PKK are inseparable, and given the latter’s renewed fighting against the Turkish state, the former is also a direct threat. Given the fact that another affiliate of the PKK, the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), has carried out a series of horrific and deadly bombings in Turkey over the past year, Turkey views the YPG on its southern border as an existential threat.
On the issue of Fethullah Gülen, who Turkey claims masterminded the July 15 coup attempt which killed more than 200, Turkey has presented a dossier of evidence aiming to prove that the Pennsylvania-based cleric has committed crimes warranting his extradition.
On both of these issues, the Obama administration has been less than forthcoming. It has maintained its stance that the YPG does not have links to the PKK, while Turkey perceives the U.S. government as being slow to act on the extradition of Gülen. While the U.S. government has repeatedly emphasized the need for a full judicial review of evidence provided by Turkey and the length of the proceedings, Turkey has responded with questions over why the U.S. has not at least arrested Gülen under the terms of a 1979 extradition treaty signed by the U.S. and Turkey.
A recent statement from White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest seemed to imply that Turkey’s case against Gülen was wanting for evidence. “[T]he Department of Justice has, for a number of months now, been working closely with their Turkish counterparts to determine what sort of evidence is available to support the petition for his extradition that was issued by the Turkish government”, Earnest told reporters. He added that the Department of Justice was taking the matter seriously.
For Turkey, since Trump was elected, the issues of both the YPG and Gülen have been a matter of “when, not if”. Turkey has a few reasons to feel hopeful. A day after the election, retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn penned an op-ed titled “Our ally Turkey is in crisis and needs our support”, in which he makes the case for the extradition of Gülen, painting him as a “radical Islamist”. Flynn was later named to Trump’s team as National Security Advisor.
The two components of an extradition are political will and judicial process. Even before the inauguration, Flynn’s op-ed suggests that the Trump administration has, at the very least, more political will on this issue than the Obama administration. However, the judicial process is designed to remain separate from the political will. As with the 1992 decision by a federal appellate court to block the extradition of an IRA terrorist to the UK, political will is not enough for an extradition, even when a key ally is involved.
However, Trump has already shown that he will not be the usual sort of president, and he has very little regard for many U.S. institutions and laws. It’s hard to predict what is possible when the incoming president takes Russia at its word but not the U.S. intelligence community.
The future of the YPG issue, however, is more clear cut. For all Turkey’s hopes that the U.S. will back away from the YPG, all signs indicate that instead the Trump administration will continue — and perhaps even intensify — this policy.
Trump himself told the New York Times in July that he is “a fan of the Kurds” because of their ability to take down ISIS. He went on to state that the ideal solution to the impasse between Turkey and the U.S. over the Kurds would be to “get them [Turkey and the Kurds] all together”.
More recently, Trump’s picks for Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense expressed views in their confirmation hearings that show just how untenable Turkish hopes for the U.S.’s YPG policy are.
Despite Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson stating that the U.S. needs to “re-engage” with Erdoğan over Syria, he went on to express his support for the “Syrian Kurds” — meaning the YPG — as Washington’s “greatest allies” in the fight against ISIS. Tillerson went further than suggesting the U.S. maintain current levels of support, and proposed a more robust involvement that would strengthen the YPG’s hand in Syria. After helping the YPG take Raqqa, Tillerson said the U.S. needs to “build coalition forces that can contain ISIS if it attempts to move into this other part of the country.”
While Secretary of Defense nominee General James Mattis did not mention Turkey specifically during his testimony, he made a case for propping up traditional alliances, especially NATO, of which Turkey is a member. But like Tillerson, he also emphasized the importance of the fight against ISIS and noted the need to energize the Raqqa offensive with “a more aggressive timeline”. Given that the SDF — including the YPG — are the central force making daily gains against ISIS in Raqqa, it follows that Mattis would not recommend to Trump that the U.S. draw back its support for them any time soon.
If confirmed, both Tillerson and Mattis will have the ear of Trump on key issues of concern to Turkey, and given these statements with regard to the Syrian Kurds, Turkey shouldn’t hold its breath for a significant change in its favor regarding this issue.
However, this does not mean that U.S.-Turkey relations are doomed to continue to fester under the Trump administration. In the July New York Times interview, Trump indicated that he will not pressure Turkey when it comes to its human rights record, even during the ongoing state of emergency in which thousands of civil servants, security authorities, academics and educators, and journalists have been fired and arrested.
“I think right now when it comes to civil liberties, our country has a lot of problems, and I think it’s very hard for us to get involved in other countries when we don’t know what we are doing and we can’t see straight in our own country”, he said.
This removes one of the critical points of tension between the Obama administration and the current AKP government in Turkey, though it will be a disappointment for members of the opposition and their supporters.
What’s more, with U.S.-Turkey relations having devolved into social media spats, the arrival of a new administration in and of itself could bring a breath of fresh air to the relationship.
But Trump is nothing if not unpredictable, and he has his own penchant for Twitter feuds. Even if U.S.-Turkey relations improve under his administration, they may unfold more and more in periodic installments of 140 characters or less.