Will Trump find an ally in Turkey's Erdogan?

Will Trump find an ally in Turkey's Erdogan?
4 min read
10 November, 2016
Analysis: Figures within Trump's campaign team have already called for the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, and greater cooperation with Ankara in efforts to tackle the Islamic State group.
Trump and Erdogan have been identifed by some as potential allies [Getty]

Following Donald Trump's surprise victory to become the 45th US president, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is said to have phoned the billionaire real estate mogul to offer his congratulations.

Erdogan tweeted: "I congratulate @realDonaldTrump on being elected as the 45th president of the US and look forward to further strengthening our relations."

Erdogan's comments marked a change in tone from some of the Turkish president's rhetoric towards Trump during his campaign when, at one stage, he referred to the Republican candidate as an "unsuccessful politician".

Trump and Erdogan: Allies in the making?

It has been suggested that Trump's admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin as a "strong leader" could similarly facilitate improved relations with Ankara, where Erdogan has attempted to pick apart Turkey's constitution in order to preserve his rule.

From a Turkish standpoint, Trump represents an unpredictable but potentially more flexible leader than Clinton, who Erdogan criticised as a "political novice" in October after the former Secretary of State expressed support for US plans to arm Kurdish forces in Syria to tackle the Islamic State group.

A political "novice" Clinton certainly is not, unlike Trump. If anything it was Clinton's association with the Obama administration - in which she served as Secretary of State - combined with her likelihood to have continued Washington's stance of stonewalling Ankara's demands for the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, perceived by Erdogan as the mastermind of the July 15 coup, that would have been viewed with a sense of foreboding frustration.

Perhaps sniffing a fresh opportunity, overtures towards Trump calling for Gulen's extradition have already been made by figures including Turkey's prime minister, Binali Yildrim.

A recent op-ed, written by former army Lt General Michael Flynn, published in The Hill has certainly given Turkey reason to be optimistic.

In the article, Flynn, currently serving as an adviser to Trump, notably compares Gulen to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei, and additionally describes the controversial cleric as both a "friend" of Bill Clinton, and "Turkey's version of Osama Bin Laden".

Confronting the Islamic State group

While the Obama administration has remained fairly mute when confronted with demands to extradite Gulen, Flynn's trajectory suggests that extraditing the Turkish opposition leader could be viewed by the Trump camp as a means of enhancing Turkish-American relations.

"We must begin with understanding that Turkey is vital to US interests," writes Flynn.

"Turkey is really our strongest ally against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), as well as a source of stability in the region. It provides badly needed cooperation with US military operations. But the Obama administration is keeping Erdoğan's government at arm's length - an unwise policy that threatens our long-standing alliance."

Flynn's article draws little attention to the widespread clampdowns and restrictions on civil liberties that have come into place in Turkey since the July 15 coup attempt which have seen thousands of civil servants, journalists, members of the armed forces, and even famous footballers arrested in events widely criticised by rights groups - realities that, taken together, make it seem unlikely Gulen himself would face a fair trial in Turkey.

However, this seems beside the point, the emphasis in Washington is on the geo-political benefits of aligning with Turkey.

Additionally, the suggestion that Turkey represents Washington's "strongest ally" against IS also suggests a disatisfaction with the Obama administration's policy towards IS in Syria which has seen Syrian Kurdish forces provided with arms and entrusted with an immiment assault on the city of Raqqa, the de facto IS capital in Syria.

Turkey is unlikely to baulk at such a critique - as Ankara views the Syrian Kurdish PYD as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has waged a guerrilla war with the Turkish state since the 1980s.

Erdogan has been angered by the Obama administration's
desire to sideline Turkey from operations tackling IS in both Syria (where Turkey has decided to intervene anyway), and Iraq; in addition to the refusal to hand over Gulen. 

While Erdogan is likely to remain wary of Trump, who has proven himself a wildly unpredictable figure, Ankara is likely to be considering the remarkable change in the White House with a certain amount of optimism, albeit tempered with caution. Having dismissed Trump as an "unsuccessful politician" Erdogan has now been forced to reconsider his evaluation, and doing so may yet prove in the Turkish premier's interests.

Follow Martin Armstrong on Twitter: @martnbeirut