Did Erdogan's Photo Op With Trump Mean Anything?

The May 9 decision by President Donald Trump to provide arms to Syrian Kurds, a mere week before Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was scheduled to visit the White House, spurred Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) to lobby Erdogan to cancel his trip. It would change nothing, they argued, and Erdogan should not act as though such an action is business as usual.

But Erdogan shrugged off the CHP’s protests. “They should first learn how to make politics,” he said. “We know what to do, when to do and how to evaluate our relations. We don’t need to get the main opposition’s opinion.” He went on: “To me, it is not an ideal political approach to target a terror organization with the help of another terror organization.”

Two days after lunching with Trump, Erdogan spoke in Istanbul to the influential Turkish business organization TUSIAD and admitted that despite the meeting the U.S. remains determined to arm the Syrian Kurds in exchange for their help in fighting the Islamic State.

“I told them, ‘We won’t take part in any operation where you cooperate with terror organizations’ and wished them well,” Erdogan said. “YPG is a terror organization, PYD is a terror organization. The U.S. is cooperating with these terror groups now.”

Erdogan also said he told Trump that “… if these terror groups create any threat to our homeland, we will use our right (to self-defense) and will do what is necessary. We said it in advance. This won’t be open to any negotiation.”

Before the visit, Erdogan also had been publicly pressing for the U.S. to turn over Fethullah Gulen, a Turkey-born Sunni cleric living in self-exile in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, whose followers were deemed a terror group after the failed putsch attempt of July 15. He made no progress on that front, either.

So did Erdogan standing next to Trump and smiling for the cameras mean anything?

The Turkish government is stronger now than it was a decade ago, though Erdogan’s egocentric, intolerant, aggressive ruling style has not changed since then. Years of wielding power in that way has produced a kind of recklessness that made itself felt within the hour of the White House meeting, when his security guards beat unarmed demonstrators — deemed by the embassy as supporters of the Kurdish separatist PKK — outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence near Sheridan Circle. Nine people were injured, one seriously.

Erdogan could have been happy slapping the CHP in the face with his White House visit, but if he listened to his opposition, Turkey might have one less problem. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has been a steady friend of Turkey and the Turkish people, called Turkey a “third-world country” and demanded the “Turkish ambassador get the hell out of the [U.S.]”

Trump hasn’t said anything about this incident, and left on his first foreign trip the day after meeting with Erdogan. His first stop was Saudi Arabia, where he signed a $350 billion arms deal and delivered a speech about fighting radicalism — making sure to condemn Iran while conveniently glossing over the Saudis’ human rights record. Clearly, our world leaders couldn’t care less about the values their countries allegedly represent, as long as their interests — read: money — are served.

Turkey’s foreign policy is bankrupt and the stakes for the nation is at a key juncture. Hakan Akbas, senior adviser at Albright Stonebridge Group in Turkey, said Erdogan’s visit to the U.S. will find meaning and context only after Turkey decides how to work with the Saudi, Egyptian and Israeli governments. Given the record, there’s not much reason to be hopeful. Nevertheless, Turks — and the rest of the world — can only hope that the AKP and its supporters understand that the country’s future is better served and protected by keeping strong ties to the West.

*This article was first published on halimiz.com May 25, 2017

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