Every president leaves various problems unsolved, passing them on to his successor. One such problem is scheduled to arrive in Washington on Tuesday. Its name is Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and he is president of Turkey.
Erdogan himself is what you might call a “difficult personality,” regarded in the West as a ruthless, power-grabbing autocrat at home and, at best, a prickly, often uncooperative ally in regional matters.
So far, the U.S. has managed to stay on speaking terms with Turkey; but the decision of the Trump administration to send arms to the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units group (known by its Kurdish abbreviation, the YPG) in the campaign against Islamic State has thrown the bilateral relationship into crisis.
The issue was left over from the Obama administration. Former President Barack Obama reportedly pondered the Kurdish option for a long time before deciding, in the last week of his tenure, to let Mr. Trump decide.
The decision, which the president no doubt has also been pondering since taking office, if not before, has now been made. To no one’s surprise, the Turks are furious.
The Turkish prime minister called it “unacceptable,” and the foreign minister branded it “a threat.” Erdogan called it a “mistake.”
“I hope very much that this mistake will be reversed immediately,” he said last week.
Then, apparently realizing that such hard talk could wreck relations with President Trump before they even sit down together for the first time in the White House, he sounded a more conciliatory tone on Friday:
“Right now there are certain moves in the United States coming from the past, such as the weapons assistance to the YPG,” Erdogan said Friday. “I actually see this U.S. visit as a new beginning in our ties.”
Blaming Mr. Obama could be just the right tack to take with his successor. Erdogan blames Mr. Obama for being critical of his domestic politics, which he considers none of Washington’s business, and insisted, to no avail, on the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan alleges masterminded a failed coup against him last year.
President Trump can sympathize. He also blames Mr. Obama for a lot of things. And, unlike the former president, he has already indicated that he has little interest in lecturing foreign leaders on democratic values. While European leaders persisted in badgering Erdogan about “creeping autocracy” after he amassed more power in a national referendum last month, Mr. Trump offered his congratulations.
This presumably lowered hackles in Ankara. But they regard the issue of arming the YPG as touching on national security. As far as Turkey is concerned, YPG is as much a terrorist group as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is on Washingon’s terror list too. They fear the creation of a YPG state on its border in northern Syria, one that would be hostile to Turkey and friendly to the PKK insurgents they have fought for decades.
On the other hand, the U.S. needs the Syrian Kurds in the war against ISIS. As Lincoln reportedly said of Grant, “I can’t spare this man; he fights.”
While it looks like an either/or proposition — either the Turks or the Kurds — it may not have to be. The hope of Tuesday’s meeting is that both sides will see that if the U.S. becomes the friend of Turkey’s enemy, it does not necessarily mean it becomes the enemy of Turkey.
For one thing, President Trump can make it clear that the goal of American policy is the defeat of Islamic State and terrorism around the world — a goal that Turkey shares — and that it has no desire to undermine Turkish security.
More specifically, President Trump can reaffirm and perhaps expand on the pledge already made by the Pentagon to keep a close watch on the arms it gives the Kurds, to make sure they don’t find their way to the PKK. The U.S. can also assist the Turks with greater intelligence sharing to enhance their ability to seal their borders to infiltrators.
He could also suggest setting up a special channel for coordinating military activities in Syria, so that Turkish forces do not bomb American forces, as they came close to doing a few days ago.
As Sen. John McCain said earlier this year, if Turkish-Kurdish tensions get out of hand, the result will be a “train wreck” in Syria.
McCain expressed support for the president’s decision, but noted: “It’s very complicated. I think it should be done, but we have a lot of work to do with the Turks.”
That work can get started at the White House on Tuesday, though it certainly will not be easy. President Trump’s skills as a dealmaker will never be more in demand as in the meeting with Erdogan.