By Deniz Yuksel
President Trump met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for the first time yesterday. Both leaders praised the U.S.–Turkey partnership, emphasizing the need for further cooperation. The meeting was cordial despite tensions between the U.S. and Turkey after Trump announced last week that the U.S. would directly arm the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a multi-ethnic alliance, dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), against the Islamic State.
Turkey was outraged by the decision, insisting that YPG is a terrorist organization, and an arm of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is a Kurdish militia that has been engaged in a bloody conflict with Turkey since 1984. The PKK is listed as a terrorist organization by many countries and organizations, including the United States and the European Union. It is well known that while YPG and PKK are not one-and-the-same, the two groups are connected, both ideologically and operationally, with many of YPG’s top commanders coming from PKK ranks. Nevertheless, the United States does not consider YPG a terrorist organization, thereby allowing it to rely on SDF in the absence of an alternative force against ISIS, according to U.S. officials.
Erdogan had said earlier that yesterday’s meeting would mark a “milestone” in relations, hoping that his efforts to convince Trump to reverse his decision about arming the Kurds would lead to a breakthrough. During the joint press conference, Trump made no reference to the decision, but expressed support for Turkey’s fight against the PKK, and asserted the U.S. and Turkey’s mutual commitment to ending conflict in Syria. Secretary of Defense James Mattis also announced that the Pentagon is planning to increase cooperation on Turkey’s counter-PKK efforts, after a meeting with his Turkish counterpart yesterday.
The Turkish president conveyed his concerns about the recent decision to Trump. “It is absolutely unacceptable to take the YPG-PYD into consideration as partners in the region, and it’s going against a global agreement we reached,” Erdogan said. Turkey is worried about a U.S.–SDF partnership legitimizing the YPG, and arms supplied by the U.S. being smuggled into Turkey for use against Turkish citizens.
So far, Erdogan’s response has been measured. Erdogan came to Washington despite the decision, signaling that this is not the end of the world for bilateral relations. U.S. officials have emphasized the tactical nature of this partnership, to both Erdogan and the SDF. Any indication that Washington supports the group’s political goals would create irreparable damage in bilateral relations, and further boost anti-American sentiment in Turkey, a longer-term threat to the relationship.
At a Middle East Institute panel today, Jonathan Cohen, Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs at the State Department, suggested that the U.S. made no promises to the Kurds and insisted that the partnership is merely transactional. After all, ISIS poses a threat to Syrian Kurds as well.
But Syria was not the only topic on the agenda. The meeting came at a critical time in U.S.–Turkey relations, with a pending extradition request for Fetullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric accused of instigating a coup last summer, and the high-profile sanctions violation case against Iranian-Turkish gold trader Reza Zarrab also among the Turkish delegation’s priorities.
In fact, recent reporting suggests that Zarrab’s trial might implicate Erdogan’s family members, or even Erdogan himself. If this is the case, the trial might be a more pressing priority to Ankara than one might think.
Mr. Zarrab was arrested in Florida last year, accused of being involved in a scheme to evade U.S-led sanctions to trade gold for Iranian oil. Erdogan has come out in support of Zarrab, claiming that his arrest is politically motivated.
Mr. Zarrab’s family attorney was seen outside the Turkish Ambassador’s residence while President Erdogan was attending a meeting in the building, suggesting that the case is at the top of Erdogan’s Washington agenda. Erdogan is likely to have pressed for Zarrab’s release, along with that of Mehmet Hakan Atilla, the deputy manager of one of Turkey’s largest state-owned banks. Atilla was arrested by U.S. authorities in March, in connection with the Zarrab case.
Because of the possibility of a settlement, finding a way to drop the charges against Zarrab would be much easier than pushing for Gulen’s extradition. Plea bargaining, which usually occurs between defense lawyers and prosecutors, seems to be happening at a diplomatic level in this case. Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, who is part of Zarrab’s defense team, made it clear that he is seeking a diplomatic solution to the trial. Perhaps Trump could somehow find a way to push for a settlement in Zarrab’s favor, in return for arming Syrian Kurds, or for an extended lease on the NATO Incirlik Airbase in Turkey.
It remains to be seen if Trump’s intervention in the Zarrab case could be a quid pro quo exchange, in return for Turkey accepting the United States’ arming of SDF. Mr. Zarrab’s trial is scheduled for October, leaving a lot of time for further diplomacy and for the situation in Syria to evolve. Then again, considering how much press the case has received in the United States, and the larger context of the ongoing clash between the Trump administration and the judiciary, any perception of presidential intervention in the case is likely to generate a significant amount of domestic backlash.