Despite ongoing friction between the United States and Turkey, the two countries' leaders held what appeared to be a cordial meeting at the White House today. In fact, U.S. President Donald Trump has recently put extra effort into creating a positive atmosphere around Washington's relationships with many of the Middle East's major Sunni powers, placing friendly phone calls, issuing personal invitations to the White House, and steering clear of contentious human rights issues.
Still, his attempts haven't cut through the geopolitical tension that characterizes many of these relationships — and his nation's ties with Turkey are no exception. Washington and Ankara have found common ground in neutralizing the Islamic State and containing Iranian and Russian ambitions. These mutual goals have laid the groundwork for an enduring strategic understanding between the United States and Turkey, which Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan both hailed in their May 16 meeting.
But the two countries have different ideas about how to manage the volatile Middle East. Ankara, for its part, is focused on trying to secure its territorial integrity — an objective that entails keeping the Kurds divided and preventing an autonomous region from emerging in Syria. Washington and Moscow, however, are interfering with that plan by setting up buffer zones between Turkish troops and the Kurdish fighters they're pursuing.
In fact, in the past few weeks, Turkey has taken some heavy blows from the world's major powers on the Syrian battlefield. Just before Erdogan's trip in early May to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russian troops hemmed in Turkish forces around the Kurds' Afrin canton, temporarily halting their offensive against the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria. The move came not long after U.S. and Russian troops blocked Ankara's advance on the Kurdish militias near the city of Manbij. Then, just days before Erdogan's visit to the White House, Washington announced its intention to directly arm Ankara's YPG adversaries.
Of course, the United States was never expected to pull back its support for the Kurds simply to put Turkey's mind at ease. Washington's top regional priority, after all, is to keep up the momentum in its offensive against Islamic State fighters in Raqqa. And unless Turkey deploys its own forces en masse, which it isn't prepared to do, the United States has no good substitute for its YPG allies. Even so, Washington will find other ways to cooperate with Ankara and discourage it from targeting the very Kurdish fighters the United States is counting on in the battle for Raqqa. For instance, Washington is rumored to have assured Ankara that the YPG will not remain in the city once it has been cleared, will play a secondary role in the offensive, and will receive only limited transfers of sensitive weapons to discourage their spread to Kurdish militants operating in Turkey. Intelligence sharing — now a particularly hot topic in the White House amid reports of a controversial decision to share sensitive information with Russia — will also provide an opportunity for working with Turkey. In all likelihood, Washington will pledge to pass along any sensitive information pertaining to the Kurdistan Workers' Party, the main Kurdish militant group operating in Turkey and a foreign terrorist organization in the United States' eyes.
Though Trump also highlighted Turkey's critical Cold War-era partnership with the West during today's press conference, Erdogan's Islamist and populist agenda has no doubt made the West uncomfortable in recent years. Turkey is not the same country it was throughout the Cold War, when it was more secular, Western-oriented and eager to come under NATO's security umbrella. Instead, Turkey now believes the United States to be somewhat foolish for pretending that states still exist where power vacuums have pervaded the Middle East. From Ankara's perspective, Iraq and Syria are already broken; there is no sense in acting as though Baghdad and Damascus can assert their writ throughout their countries. So, Turkey has instead sought to work with certain regional actors, even if doing so comes at the expense of central governments, while expanding its own footprint throughout its neighborhood. Ankara hopes to create space for moderate Islamist governments to emerge across the region — a strategy that has put it at odds with countries threatened by the rise of political Islamists such as Egypt, Jordan, Israel and members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Their discord, in turn, has complicated the United States' efforts to stabilize the region.
Erdogan likely broached two tricky legal cases with Trump while he was in Washington as well. The first concerns Turkey's long-standing request for the extradition of cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara has accused of masterminding the 2016 failed coup attempt against Erdogan. But the U.S. legal system won't allow for a quick and simple request of this nature to be granted. Even if Trump wanted to do the Turkish president a favor to improve their partnership, a U.S. federal judge would still have to determine whether there is sufficient probable cause to believe that Gulen committed an extraditable crime and will be given a fair trial in Turkey. (Concern for the latter has only grown amid Erdogan's aggressive purge of his political rivals.) The case would then fall to the State Department to make a final call.
There is also another, lesser-known case worrying Erdogan. An Iranian-born Turkish businessman, Reza Zarrab, was arrested in the United States last year on charges of using the U.S. banking system to help Iran evade sanctions. The case was first exposed when Gulenist prosecutors detained members of Erdogan's inner circle on related corruption charges in December 2013, firing the opening shot of the Gulenists' battle with the Erdogan administration. Though the Turkish president has since dismissed the court case and expelled the Gulenists from his government, the United States has picked up the matter. Erdogan has thus been quietly appealing to Washington to drop the charges against Zarrab, lest his plea bargain or trial expose additional incriminating evidence against the president. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey are part of Zarrab's legal team, giving rise to speculation that Erdogan may rely on their personal connections with Trump to try to negotiate a deal.
So far, there is little reason to think the White House would entertain such a settlement. But there's no denying that the United States holds two substantial bargaining chips as it works to manage tension with Turkey on the Syrian battlefield. Ankara, meanwhile, will continue to doubt Washington's vow to contain the YPG as the fight for Raqqa unfolds. Turkey is playing the long game, though. Because Ankara knows that when the battle against the Islamic State nears its end, it will once again have room to divide and conquer the region's Kurds.