Erdoğan gets Trump photo-op at UN, but maybe not much more

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was unable to secure a formal meeting with President Donald Trump during his visit to New York for this week’s UN General Assembly, where he had hoped to leverage what he sees as the two leaders’ special relationship to overcome significant tensions between the two NATO countries.

The pair reportedly spoke about bilateral and regional issues by phone on Sunday according to Turkey’s Directorate of Communications and met briefly at a Trump-hosted reception on Wednesday, but had no time for in-depth talks. 

At a UN event on religious freedom on Monday, Trump praised Erdoğan, who he said is “a man who has become a friend of mine.”

Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 missiles systems, debate over how to jointly implement a safe zone in northeast Syria, and potential U.S. sanctions on Turkey are of pressing concern for Erdoğan.

Closely tied to developments on these political issues is the stability of the Turkish economy. The lira strengthened against the dollar on Tuesday amid reports in Turkish media that an imminent Turkey-U.S. trade deal could involve Turkey’s reinstatement in the programme to make F-35 fighter jets and reductions of U.S. tariffs on Turkish steel.

“Erdoğan has to make the case to Trump that there are material benefits that are greater than the S-400 issue,” Howard Eissenstat, associate professor of Middle East history at St. Lawrence University and non-resident senior fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy, told Ahval.

“Giving Turkey greater control in Syria is in line with Trump’s desire to reduce U.S. costs in the conflict,” he said. “Erdoğan has also talked about the purchase of more weapons and civilian aircrafts from the U.S.. These dollars and cents arguments appeal to Trump.”

On Tuesday, Erdoğan’s used his address at the UN General Assembly to highlight the proposed safe zone in northern Syria. He said it would “enable the settlement of 2 million Syrians there with the support of the international community”.

Last month, Turkey and the United States were able to reach an initial safe zone agreement that established a joint command centre in southern Turkey and they have begun joint patrols in northern Syria.

But Turkey remains concerned about U.S. support for the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG) and wants greater assurances from the United States that the group will be fully removed from the border region. Turkey sees the YPG as a terrorist group and an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that is fighting inside Turkey.

Before leaving for New York, Erdoğan told reporters in Istanbul, “We cannot afford to overlook the support that the U.S. is giving to a terrorist organisation.”

He warned that Turkey was ready to take unilateral action in northern Syria by the end of the month if the United States does not meet Turkey’s expectations. “Our preparations along our borders are complete," he said.

Although it does not appear that Erdoğan and Trump came to any resolution on the Syrian conflict in New York, Erdoğan’s spokesman, İbrahim Kalın, did meet U.S. Special Representative for Syria James Jeffrey. “An agreement was reached on intensifying joint efforts to achieve lasting peace in Syria,” said a Turkish press release, without giving further details. 

In an attempt to put a spotlight on Erdoğan’s repressive tendencies, Gülen-linked organisations based in Sweden sponsored anti-Erdoğan truck billboards driving around New York this week. One billboard made inflammatory claims that the Erdoğan administration supported jihadists, including Islamic State (ISIS).

“Highlighting ISIS is a little bit disingenuous,” Eissenstat told Ahval. Turkish officials may have interacted with ISIS four to five years ago, he added, but “their interaction was, in any case, less strategy than ad hoc deals. If we are talking about recent actions, Turkey plays an important role in fighting ISIS.”

Although Gülenists were involved in the 2016 coup attempt, the majority of the Gülen movement was not. Faced with unjust transnational persecution, the opaque movement has done little to help its cause. 

Eissenstat said he was “frustrated with the spread of Gülenist organisations that take pains to hide their Gülen-affiliations. The plethora of organisations with innocuous names muddies the water.”

Other events in New York were more positive for Erdoğan. On Sunday, he gave a keynote address to leaders of the U.S. Muslim community organised by the Turkish American National Steering Committee (TASC). At the event, Oussoma Jammal, the secretary general of the United States Council for Muslim Organizations (USCMO), praised Erdoğan’s Islamic leadership. 

In his UN General Assembly address, Erdoğan drew attention to conflicts involving Muslims worldwide. He called for the resolution of the Kashmir conflict, accused populist politicians of provoking hate crimes against Muslims, and heavily criticised Israel’s treatment of Palestine.

“His address mostly focused on pleasing domestic audiences,” according to Eissenstat. “He used his greatest hits including the global south versus Western hegemony narrative.”

“His emphasis on Islamophobia was part of this,” Eissenstat said. “He presented a general narrative of the West being incapable of living up to its own standards and Turkey representing an attempt to create a more just system.”

In the end, Erdoğan had his photo op with Trump, among others, signalling to his domestic audience that he is up there with world leaders. Whether there was any movement on key disputes between Turkey and the United States remains to be seen.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.