President Donald Trump will sit down with face to face with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday – and it’s likely to be awkward.
The White House meeting comes a week after Trump signed off on a plan vehemently opposed by Turkey, which authorizes directly arming Syrian Kurds in the fight to take back the Islamic State capital of Raqqa in Syria.
The decision, announced before Erdogan had a chance to make his case in person, is setting the two allies on a collision course after months of rising tensions.
Turkey has angrily opposed any American support for the Peoples Protection Units, known as the YPG, saying the group is linked to an internationally recognized terrorist organization that has carried out attacks in Turkey. Turkish officials have insisted that the only acceptable option for the U.S.-led international coalition is to partner with Turkey’s own forces.
The fight against terrorism should not be led with another terror organization.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
“I want to believe that Turkey’s allies will side with us, not with terrorist organizations,” Erdogan said last week. “I hope this mistake will be reversed as soon as possible.”
Turkey had high hopes that Trump’s administration would be more aligned with its interests than was President Barack Obama’s. The YPG has ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which Turkey considers a terrorist group. The Pentagon, however, considers the YPG the most effective military partner against the Islamic State.
According to the White House, Trump and Erdogan are expected to “discuss how to further strengthen our bilateral relationship and deepen our cooperation to confront terrorism in all its forms.” Given that Turkey considers partnering with the YPG a non-negotiable condition, it is difficult to see how the two leaders will work out a resolution.
The decision was announced last Tuesday as Turkish officials, including the commander of the Turkish Armed Forces, the head of Turkey’s intelligence agency, and one of Erdogan’s top advisers were still in Washington laying the groundwork for the meeting between the two presidents.
Announcing the decision without waiting to meet with Erdogan is “humiliating” considering the sensitivity of the matter to Turkey, said Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“There is a huge question mark over which way the relationship is going to go,” he said.
Trump and Erdogan have spoken at least three times, and in two of those conversations they discussed plans to fight ISIS in Syria, according to the White House. Trump also took the unusual step of calling Erdogan to congratulate him after Turkey voted to give him sweeping new powers in a controversial referendum last month.
Erdogan’s meeting with Trump also comes after months of worsening relations with other NATO allies, most notably Germany.
On Monday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Germany could move its 250 troops from Turkey’s Incirlik air base to an alternative base in Jordan after Turkey did not allow German lawmakers to visit the base.
“We will continue to talk with Turkey, but in parallel we will have to explore other ways of fulfilling our mandate,” Merkel told reporters.
Turkey, the only majority Muslim country in the NATO alliance, hosts more than 2,500 U.S. troops at Incirlik, a key launching point for air strikes against the Islamic State. In May 2016, one-third of all refueling and one-fifth of the air support for the international coalition fighting ISIS took place at that air base.
The air base, however, has been a flashpoint for Turkish-U.S. relations. During an attempted coup last July, the Turkish government cut off power to the base for several days. In March 2016, family members of U.S. personnel stationed at Incirlik were ordered to evacuate amid rising security concerns.
2,500 Approximate number of U.S. troops at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey
A few days after the Trump administration announced it would arm the YPG, a prominent Turkish newspaper published a front-page editorial demanding that the U.S. be evicted from Incirlik and forced to take out its planes and personnel.
Erdogan’s ministers were barred from giving campaign speeches in German and Dutch cities ahead of a referendum in April that handed Erdogan greater powers. The diplomatic dispute between NATO allies escalated when the Turkish government accused the German government of “Nazi practices” and called the Dutch “Nazi remnants,” warning that they will “pay the price” and telling the Dutch ambassador not to return to Ankara.
In interviews with visiting foreign journalists in Ankara in March, Turkish officials said that relations with the West have deteriorated because it is failing to give Turkey credit for its contributions to the battle against ISIS, and for taking in 3 million Syrian refugees.
As ties to Europe are fraying, Turkey’s relations with Moscow are improving after three years of sanctions imposed by Russia after Turkey show shot down a Russian plane in 2014.
Erdogan met Vladimir Putin earlier this month in Sochi, where he told the Russian president that together Russia and Turkey can “change the destiny of the whole region.” Putin said that “Russian-Turkish relations are attaining a special character, a special status, and are being fully restored.”