Briefing on Turkey, Syria and the Trump Presidency

Bottom line up front: The Trump presidency offers a chance to narrow the distance that has grown between Washington and Ankara over the last years, while also likely to impact Turkey’s engagements in Syria and the geo-political order in Turkey’s region.

  • Trump has signalled he will take a more bullish and transactional approach in the Middle East, and cooperate with Russia, possibly requiring Turkey to recalculate its positions.
  • Ankara may find its interests in Syria conflicting with those of the partners the US decides to prioritise; time will tell how Trump navigates these complications.
  • Trump may be warmer to Turkey under Erdogan, as the two share populist rhetorical tendencies, but this may not necessarily translate into a sustained strengthening of ties.

Since Donald Trump’s election victory, there has been considerable speculation about the approach the Trump presidency will take to foreign policy. During his campaign, Trump signalled his presidency would take a more bullish in the Middle East, shoring up the US’ alliance with Saudi Arabia and returning to confrontation with Iran. The latter could create problems for Turkey’s desire to transport Iranian gas and could stoke proxy conflicts in Turkey’s neighbourhood. The former could create a stronger Saudi Arabia, already showing increased assertiveness regionally, which would change dynamics in conflicts in countries where Turkey has interests.

At the same time, Trump has shown a desire to improve his country’s ties with Russia and has expressed interest in withdrawing the US from conflicts. This could speed up the current warming of Turkish-Russian ties but also to a shift in the momentum of the Syrian conflict. Trump is likely to be more focused on defeating IS than Assad and appears to be happy to continue arming Kurdish groups towards this end. Turkey will want to maintain influence over developments in Syria as in Iraq, especially in areas close to its borders. This is likely driving Turkey’s current involvement in northern Syria. This aligns with Saudi ambitions but conflicts with Russian, Iranian and Kurdish. Time will tell how Trump navigates these complications.

A more transactional approach to foreign policy, another speculated aspect of Trump’s presidency, could provide areas for cooperation. Commentators have suggested Trump will pursue a pragmatic approach to engaging with other countries, based on mutually beneficially deals. A top advisor to Trump, Michael T. Flynn, who himself reportedly has ties to the Turkish government, has written that the US should extradite Fethullah Gulen to maintain its vital ties to Turkey. Such a move would win the US diplomatic capital in Ankara, as would less expression of concern in Washington around Turkey’s press and civil society crackdown. This diplomatic capital could translate into an initial warming of ties.

Trump is seen favourably by Turkish pro-government press. The US under Trump may be warmer to Turkey under Erdogan as the two share tendencies towards populist rhetoric. The success of both men has come partly from their ability to rhetorically frame themselves as the outsider underdog voice. Trump has also signalled he is supportive of ‘strong’ leaders and would not lecture other countries on rights issues, something which would likely endear him to Erdogan. However, beyond these similarities in presentation, questions remain as to the extent to which US and Turkish policy would align regionally.


17 November 2016

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