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Friday, January 27, 2023

Are Trump and Erdogan becoming friends again?

The COVID-19 pandemic and a new offensive by Russian and Syrian government forces in December and January in Idlib helped two strongmen, Trump and Erdogan, to come closer and “form a new bond as their interests align”. Will Erdogan-Trump honeymoon last?

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As the COVID-19 outbreak has devastatingly affected the global economy and international relations, two strong men, President Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seem to get closer to achieve some mutual interests. Analysts believe that with changed structural conditions, there is an opportunity for both leaders to develop long-term strategic partnerships. Therefore, the important question is; are Trump and Erdogan becoming friends?

As the US President has few friends in the non-western world, and is persistently losing legitimacy at home for his inability to upgrade economy or effectively contain the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak. Notably, relations between the two leaders have long blown hot and cold. But in the testing time of the COVID-19 challenge, both leaders are appearing to be on the same page, with the interests of Turkey and the United States converging on several of the biggest issues that had driven them apart in recent years.

President Trump has adopted a new policy towards Syria and Libya which is in line with what the Turkish establishment has been demanding.

According to the Turkish media reports, Trump and Erdogan shared a few jokes during a phone call amid the unprecedented global economic recession as a result of the deadly pandemic. “To be honest, after our conversation tonight, a new era can begin between the United States and Turkey,” Mr. Erdogan said during a television interview afterward on Monday.

President Erdogan, an ambitious leader with a desire for power?

As Trump and Erdogan becoming friends again, analysts believe that President Erdogan is an ambitious leader who is thinking about “his legacy—and his own mortality”. He “desires power, but not necessarily for its own sake”.

Samuel Huntington, in his popular book The Clash of Civilizations, described Turkey as the quintessential “torn country”— and one that could perhaps become untorn by becoming the central “core state” at the helm of the Muslim world, rather than a doting, awkward member of the West. To do so, Huntington argued that Turkey “would have to reject Ataturk’s legacy more thoroughly than Russia has rejected Lenin’s. It would also take a leader of Ataturk’s caliber and one who combined religious and political legitimacy to remake Turkey from a torn country into a core state.”

Huntington wrote these words in 1996, says Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, when Erdogan was a young mayor of Istanbul who few outside of Turkey had ever heard of.

Is the US now backing Turkey’s policy towards Syria and Libya?

In recent months, notes The New York Times, Trump has not stood in the way of and even assisted Turkey’s interventions in both Syria and Libya. He thanked Turkey for freeing an American evangelical pastor, even though diplomats accused Turkey of political hostage taking. And the F.B.I. has opened a budding investigation into Mr. Erdogan’s bête noire, the Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen, whom he accuses of masterminding a failed coup in 2016 from his self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania.

The NYT also notes that Trump has held off imposing sanctions against Turkey for its purchase of a Russian S-400 missile system, something that has prevented Turkey drifting further away from the West.

Asli Aydintasbas, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, believes that “President Donald Trump saved this relationship”. “If not for this strange Trump factor, we really would have been in a Turkey-Russian axis,” she added.

Moreover, President Trump has shown little interest in Libya and signaled an ambivalence over the outcome of the war. His administration formally supports the United Nations-backed government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. But Mr. Trump also held a phone call with the Libyan strongman Khalifa Hifter, a former C.I.A. asset who opened an offensive against Tripoli last year with the backing of Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

This spring Turkish forces came to the aid of the al-Sarraj government, rescuing it and turning the tide in the war, and there are signs that Washington is not opposed to the Turkish intervention.

Washington has not protested Turkey’s use of American weapons in its operations, for example, said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Ankara director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The U.S. Africa Command, based in Europe, is probably also not unhappy to see Russia restrained in Libya, he added. “What Turkey has done in containing Russia, I believe also suits the U.S. perfectly well,” he said.

A new offensive by Russian and Syrian government forces in December and January in Idlib, the last rebel-held province of Syria, then brought a new convergence of interests between Turkey and the United States. The Russian aggression in Idlib was one of the main drivers that has pushed Turkey into a closer cooperation with the United States, said Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies. “That was a turning point,” he said.

US supports Kurds: Turkey’s National Security challenge?

To answer are Trump and Erdogan becoming friends, it is imperative to look at the recent developments in the region. Turkey had long complained that the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, who collaborated with U.S. forces in fighting the Islamic State in Syria, were the same organization that has been mounting an insurgency inside Turkey for three decades.

The Pentagon’s arming and training of the Kurdish forces along Turkey’s southern border represented not only a security threat to Turkey but became an enormous diplomatic dispute with Washington.

That problem has more or less gone away after Mr. Trump pulled American troops away from Syria’s northern border and reduced their footprint to a smaller area in the south of the country.

Mr. Trump’s move set off anguished protests in Congress and even among his own military over what many saw as its betrayal of longstanding Kurdish allies. But the sudden withdrawal cleared the way for Turkey to seize control of a narrow band of territory along the border inside Syria, with Russia moving into the remaining border areas.

Turkey says that the YPG is a “terrorist offshoot” of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been waging an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984.

In October 2019, Turkish forces initiated an operation against terrorists. Although the US did not approve the operation yet Pakistan assured Turkey of full support in its fight against terrorists who pose a threat to Turkey’s national security. Prime Minister Imran Khan telephoned Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and reiterated Pakistan’s full support and solidarity with Turkey, saying that Islamabad understood Ankara’s concerns relating terrorism.

“As a country which has lost more than 70,000 lives due to terrorism and borne the burden of more than 3 million refugees for decades, Pakistan is fully cognizant of the threats and challenges being faced by Turkey having lost 40,000 of its people to terrorism,” the prime minister said.