The new administration does not really care about the future of the Turkish democracy. Ankara and Washington are still separated by the Kurdish question, but if this question cannot be resolved, it can be avoided.
Recep Erdogan started his visit to the U.S. on May 16, during which he met with Donald Trump. As expected, they first discussed the Middle East problem. Before the visit, many experts pointed out that the meeting of the two leaders would take place against the background of serious disagreements that exist in American-Turkish relations, and which exist between Turkey and the West in general. This is true, but only partially.
Support in Exchange for Loyalty
Due to a professional vacuum in the State Department, it is a little too soon to draw any conclusion about the U.S.-Middle East strategy; however, a little over 100 days into his presidency, Trump has already plotted some of its vectors. The most striking example was a rocket strike against the Syrian military base of Al-Shayrat in April, which followed a chemical attack in Khan Shaykhun. After that, a majority of regional leaders, including Turkey, literally applauded such a militant action, action that was uncharacteristic for Washington during Barack Obama’s presidency.
The return of Republicans to the White House is a good sign for political regimes in the Middle East. If Democrats, on the one hand, have made allowances for values, demanding at least the appearance of respect for human rights and adherence to democratic principles, then Republicans, on the other, have made it clear a number of times that they are ready to sacrifice these values upon the altar of accomplishment in the national interest. The accession to power of a super-pragmatic Trump promises to reduce the value component of American foreign policy to a minimum.
It’s not hard to guess that the increasingly authoritarian Turkish administration could not have imagined a more pleasant environment in the White House. Trump, unlike European leaders, does not really care about the political changes in Turkish society.
Technically, Trump has offered Middle East leaders a chance to return to a time before Obama’s model of cooperation, when loyalty toward Washington was a guarantee of inviolable friendship with the United States, despite their frankly authoritarian nature. An example of that are the visits by leaders of several Arab states to the United States since March of this year. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Jordanian King Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein, the deputy crown prince of Saudi Arabia and the most likely successor to the incumbent monarch, Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, and finally, Recep Erdogan — all these leaders who visited Trump to demonstrate their intention to establish strategic partnerships with the United States during the last two months are most likely going to be the backbone of the new U.S. administration in the Middle East.
The Kurdish Question
Trump and Erdogan confirmed that they consider each other strategic allies based on the common interests of both countries and common positions on various questions. However, despite Trump's and Erdogan’s common views on the Middle East agenda, the Kurdish problem still remains the largest stumbling block.
The fact that Washington announced its intention to supply the Syrian Kurds with weapons several days before Erdogan’s visit only spiced up the meeting. The Pentagon justified the announcement by stating that the Kurdish People's Protection Units, known as YPG, is the only force on the ground in Syria fighting the Islamic State (the Islamic State group is banned in Russia).
The situation in which the Kurds became the only U.S. backbone in the fight against the Islamic State group is not a recent phenomenon. In 2014, when the Islamic State group began its active expansion in the region, the anti-terrorist coalition, formed by a United States initiative that formally included several dozen countries, was not backed by any real force capable of resisting jihadis on the ground.
Primarily, this was connected to the fact that under Obama, the U.S. refused to intervene directly in military conflicts, preferring instead more indirect methods, trying to solve problems by proxy although the U.S. could not find anyone among its allies willing to repel the Islamic State group, even with air support of coalition forces. Secondly, by 2014, relations between Washington and the Gulf countries experienced hard times, and after the Vienna agreement on the Iranian nuclear program was signed in the summer of 2015, relations sank to their lowest point. After the U.S. was stripped of the support of the Arabian monarchies, it lost the opportunity to rely on Sunni Arabs in Syria, which did not give the U.S. any other choice but to focus on the Kurds. As a result, over the past three years, the U.S. has found itself in an extremely delicate situation, with both of its key allies in the Middle East, both of whom are valuable to Washington in their own way, now in the position of being inexorable enemies.
However, it does not necessarily mean that the Kurdish problem has no solution. As the Syrian Kurds advance toward southern Syria, the number of Arab tribes among the total number of forces leading attacks on Islamic State group positions grows. This has been clearly seen in the course of the operation to capture Raqqa. This is also facilitated by the establishment of the American-Arab dialogue, and primarily the warming of U.S. and Saudi Arabia relations.
Apparently, the participation of Sunni Arabs in the total strength of the anti-terrorist coalition on the ground will continue to grow. And this means that the degree of Washington’s dependence on the Kurds will gradually decline, although that will require Erdogan to arm himself with patience, something which the Turkish leader does not have much left of, especially taking into account that, given the crises inside his country, Erdogan is in desperate need of a victory, which most likely will have to come from outside its borders, and first of all in Syria.