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Under Trump, A New Dynamic for U.S.-Turkish Relations

By Nicholas Danforth

Friday, November 11, 2016

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This post is part of The Next Agenda, a series that explores the main policy challenges facing the next Congress and presidential administration on issues from immigration and infrastructure to economics and energy. Check back regularly for future installments.

Turkey’s government and its press allies have welcomed President-elect Donald Trump’s victory for a number of reasons. First and foremost, a belief that Trump was less likely to criticize President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s authoritarianism and less likely to play an interventionist role in the Middle East. An exaggerated view of Hillary Clinton’s ties to the Fetullah Gülen movement—which has hired the Podesta Group and donated to key Democrats—was also a genuine source of concern.

More broadly, there is undoubtedly a sense that Trump is someone with whom Erdoğan, a friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s, can do business. Both share a similar pugnacious populism and sometimes anti-Semitic skepticism of the post-war liberal order. The simple fact that the same Western media outlets who have long criticized Erdoğan were also opposed to Trump undoubtedly burnished his image among Turkey’s pro-government pundits—and was reflected in their election night schadenfreude. Moreover, while Trump’s comments about Muslims were widely reported in Turkey, many assumed that he was simply showing the more honest face of a country in which all politicians were deeply hostile to Islam.

Several of Trump’s associates are enthusiastically hitting pro-Turkey talking points in the press.

How is Trump’s victory likely to turn out for Turkey? Pretty well, at least at first. So far things are certainly off to a friendly start, with Erdoğan having already called to congratulate Trump and several of Trump’s associates enthusiastically hitting pro-Turkey talking points in the press.

One of the first big tests of this budding friendship will come over the extradition of Gülen, who Turkey accuses of fomenting the attempted coup. Trump may well push Gülen’s case harder in the State and Justice Departments than a Clinton administration would have. But according to U.S. law the final decision on the matter is out of the president’s hand, and pushing too hard could also generate added resistance. For those in Turkey who cannot accept that the independence of the American judiciary is real, a judge’s potential refusal to extradite would likely be read as a personal betrayal by Erdoğan.

One of the first big tests of the budding Trump-Erdogan friendship will come over the extradition of Gulen. 

In Syria, the results are even harder to predict. They will depend a great deal on the difficult-to-ascertain contours of Trump’s eventual foreign policy, and on the way the chips fall with Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Turkey has come to terms with the possibility of an Assad victory, and has tried to use its rapprochement with Moscow to secure Russian acquiescence in thwarting the Syrian Kurds. But it has also not abandoned the anti-Assad rebels that serve as its proxies in Aleppo either.

If Trump’s win paves the way for a decisive Assad-regime victory, as many have predicted, it may leave Turkey with a weaker hand against an empowered Kurdish political movement. Assad might see the Kurds of Rojava, who have a history of tacit cooperation with the regime, as a valuable ally against more determined Islamist rebels, as well as against any future Turkish interference. Putin, for his part, could also conclude that maintaining a Kurdish political entity at odds with Turkey was a way of keeping both actors dependent on his favor.