President Donald Trump will face what may be his toughest meeting yet with a foreign leader this week when he welcomes Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the White House. Erdogan is a blustery and autocratically minded man, rather like Trump, and he comes to Washington, D.C., with a list of demands that senior U.S. officials rightly regard as unacceptable. Trump would do best by saying so directly – while urging the Turkish ruler to consider a change of course.
Syria will likely top the agenda. Though they are NATO allies, the United States and Turkey have come perilously close to a breach over how to fight the Islamic State. U.S. generals believe the only way to capture the jihadists’ capital, Raqqa, is by backing the Syrian Democratic Forces, which are dominated by Syrian Kurds. But Erdogan considers the Kurds enemies because of their connection to Kurdish militants in Turkey and their aspiration to carve out a ministate along the Syrian-Turkish border.
Last week Trump opted to accept the Pentagon’s plan to arm the Kurds. Erdogan responded by saying he would seek to have the decision reversed “as soon as possible.” He proposes an alternative plan under which Raqqa would be captured by a Turkish-backed force, including Syrian Islamist militias.
The U.S. plan for Raqqa is far from perfect – it would probably have the end result of returning the city to the control of the regime of Bashar al-Assad – but it is better than the Turkish alternative. It’s not clear that Erdogan’s force has the capacity to recapture the city, and even if it succeeded, the result might be to empower groups linked to al Qaida. More broadly, Erdogan’s strategic aims are misguided. Eventually he will have to accept the inevitability of Syrian Kurdish autonomy, if not a statelet.
Erdogan’s other demands will likely include the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, the U.S.-based spiritual leader whom Ankara blames for a failed 2015 military coup. But Turkey has never offered persuasive evidence that Gulen was involved in the coup, and extradition is likely to be blocked by U.S. courts. Rather than attempt to mollify the Turkish ruler on this matter, Trump should urge him to end the sweeping persecution of suspected Gulen followers and Kurdish political leaders that followed the coup. Tens of thousands have been purged from state jobs, and thousands imprisoned; Turkey now has more journalists in prison than any other nation.
Trump’s approach until now has been to ignore or even endorse Erdogan’s autocratic abuses. He was quick to place a congratulatory call to the president last month after he narrowly won a flawed referendum on a huge expansion of his powers. The White House may believe that Turkey is too strategically important to risk alienating over domestic political matters.
The problem is that Erdogan’s domestic and foreign policies are linked. Once he prided himself on observing democratic norms and sought membership in the European Union and rapprochement with the same Kurds he now bombs and jails. His domestic turn to autocracy has been accompanied by a nationalist policy of strenuously opposing legitimate Kurdish aspirations and deepening ties with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Trump should tell him that he is on the wrong track, both in Syria and at home.
© 2017, The Washington Post