Two of the world’s most important—and arguably most authoritarian—democratic leaders are meeting today for the first time.
In the prevailing global environment, the only safe prediction one can make is that anything can happen. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Donald Trump share some character traits which render anticipating what they say or do nearly impossible: both relish populist rhetoric and will change their positions abruptly to accommodate the prevailing mood of their supporters. Both derive their legitimacy from slim electoral victories and claim that winning gives them the mandate to do whatever they see fit. Both use grandstanding as a way to dare their opponents into confrontation, and both have an ample supply of people willing to take the bait.
So who has the advantage?
For two leaders so alike in personality, it’s the background differences that weigh heavily. Erdogan is a political animal, a former semi-pro soccer player from a poor working-class family who took up politics in his mid-20s as an activist in Istanbul’s politically charged Kasimpasa neighbourhood. He has been jailed for his Islamist political views and has spent the last 15 years bending Turkey’s democracy to his will.
Trump, by comparison, is a political infant. His bumbling entrance onto the political stage has proven he really has no idea what he is doing, nor does he understand the complexities of institutional norms, including the protocol of the presidency, which provide the checks and balances so crucial to democracy’s functioning. He is a businessman used to getting his way, not a politician adept at cobbling together support.
Erdogan has had to fight his way to the top, and continue fighting once there. He has taken on more powerful leaders in Europe, and won. Trump has had wealth and power handed to him, and has yet to demonstrate the hardball negotiating savvy he claims to possess will work in the high-stakes world of international politics.
Head to head, Erdogan is no doubt the odds-on favourite to make Trump squirm. As comforting as that may sound to many readers, there is too much at stake here to simply hope Trump is knocked down a notch or two.
What are the issues? Clearly, Turkey’s geographical position makes it a crucial member of the NATO alliance and the linchpin of Trump’s foreign policy agenda. Without Turkey’s cooperation, the fight against the so-called Islamic State becomes much more difficult. A hostile Turkey threatens to undermine any strategy to stabilize Syria and can, at the whim of Erdogan, resume allowing refugees—nearly three million Syrians in Turkey alone, according to the UNHCR, in addition to Afghans, Pakistanis, and others—into Europe, giving far-right leaders there a boost at a time when they are already feeling empowered.
But when Erdogan and Trump sit down together at the White House today, their discussion will likely centre on one issue: Syria. For Turkey, the nature of the U.S.’s involvement in the civil war is fundamentally at odds with its own national interests. Among the dizzying web of Syria’s militia groups, the Turks have thrown their weight behind a coalition of Islamists that despises Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Their goal is an end to his Alawite regime and the rise of a Sunni-dominated alternative. Destroying ISIS is secondary, and at times various groups in the coalition have cooperated with jihadists, including al-Qaeda, to take on regime forces.
Trump’s Syria policy, on the other hand, is hard to pin down. In 2013, he criticized the Obama White House for getting involved in the war in the first place, then argued that letting Russia get the upper hand had made America look bad. During last year’s presidential campaign, he staked out new ground, suggesting Russia was on the right track and the Syrian regime was not all that bad. Then, on April 6, after the regime allegedly used chemical weapons against civilians, he ordered a missile strike on a Syrian airbase and decided maybe the regime was not so nice after all.
On ISIS, he’s been more consistent, promising to “bomb the s–t out of ‘em” during his campaign. He hasn’t lived up to that promise yet, instead announcing last week that the U.S. would begin providing heavy weapons to its go-to team in Syria, the Kurdish YPG forces, as they prepare to lay siege to Raqqa, the self-declared ISIS capital. That has rankled Ankara, which considers the YPG a branch of the PKK, a group that has fought for independence for Turkey’s Kurds for the past four decades and is listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, Europe and the U.S.
The YPG is a fascinating ally for the Trump administration. Its brand of leftist ideology is at complete odds with Republican capitalism. Its political wing, the PYD, has set up a fragile truce with the Syrian regime, reportedly based on a promise that Syria’s northern Kurdish region bordering Turkey will be given autonomy if the regime comes back to power.
For the Turks, that goes too far. With Kurds in Iraq already enjoying de facto independence, another semi-independent Kurdish region on the Turkish border would empower Turkey’s own Kurdish separatists, Turkish officials argue.
It’s hard to imagine the U.S.-supported YPG simply going quiet and laying down their arms if and when the regime takes back control of Syria, as the U.S. has promised they will. Where those weapons end up next is the elephant in the room to which Turkey is now pointing.
The U.S., on the other hand, has a point as well. The Kurds have proven themselves to be the most effective fighting force against ISIS in Syria. The Turkish coalition, on the other hand, has had mixed results and has spent as much time fighting the Kurds as they have the militants. If it is ISIS you want to defeat, then from a military perspective, the Kurds are the logical partners.
Which leaves Turkey and the U.S. separated by a strategic chasm. Trump and Erdogan will stare each other down across that divide today. My bet is on Trump blinking first.