Turkey Holds Out Hope on Trump as Syria Strategies Finally Align

  • Turkey has been steadfast proponent of targeting Assad regime
  • Foreign Minister Cavusoglu spoke with Bloomberg in Antalya

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu discusses Turkish-American relations with Bloomberg in Antalya, Turkey on Thursday. (Source: Bloomberg)

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was fuming, but in a novel twist it wasn’t about U.S. relations.

As Turkey’s top diplomat barged into the VIP room at the Antalya expo center, he reprimanded aides for a program that was two hours off schedule. He was tied up at this tourism convention for longer than he’d expected, missed lunch, and was stuck with a lousy time slot for a television appearance -- “Will anyone be watching NTV at 6?" he barked.

But one person he’s not angry at is Donald J. Trump, the new U.S. president. Since the billionaire real estate investor was inaugurated, an unlikely revival in Turkish-American relations looks to be emerging after years of tension with Barack Obama.

The U.S. missile strike Trump ordered against Syria overnight highlighted how the two largest military powers in NATO are beginning to see eye-to-eye on the civil war there.

“We are still very hopeful," Cavusoglu said in an interview hours before the U.S. military intervention against his neighbor to the south. “The current administration has not been negative towards Turkey, and they do understand the mistakes of the previous administration perfectly."

Obama’s People

Among those mistakes, according to Cavusoglu: failure to extradite the Pennsylvania-based imam that Turkey says is the mastermind of a coup attempt last July; refusing to join Turkey in targeting the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; the “politically motivated" arrests of a well-connected gold dealer and the deputy chief executive of a state-run Turkish bank; and perhaps most importantly, the U.S. decision to team up in Syria with a Kurdish militia, the YPG, that Turkey considers a terrorist organization.

“You have these people in the field, whether it’s the military wing or the civilian wing, and they’re people from Obama’s time and so these people have already cooperated with the YPG," he said. “So they’re telling this new administration things like, ‘We’re in a rush, sir,’ and they’re trying to portray it as if there’s no alternative to the YPG. There is an alternative. We’ve shown the alternatives to Chief of Staff Dunford (chairman of the joint chiefs of staff) and other officials, and we can support them with our special forces."

Trump Strikes

Cavusoglu spoke a week after meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and just hours before Trump decided, in response to a chemical weapons attack in the city of Idlib, to launch the first airstrikes targeting Assad regime assets since the Syria war began seven years ago. That move was applauded in Turkey, which has for years been the world’s foremost proponent of removing Assad from power, while the U.S. has instead backed a war there whose objectives are limited to the eradication of Islamic State.

“The Assad regime has killed close to a million people in seven years and used all kinds of weapons. He’s used conventional weapons, he used barrel bombs. He’s killed people by leaving them to starve," Cavusoglu said. “It’s being said that the Syrian people will decide on Assad’s future. If it continues like this, will there be a Syrian people left to decide?"

Superpower Struggles

Cavusoglu bashed an argument in Western policy circles that he said “pretends that it’s only Assad on one hand and Islamic State on the other," calling it an attempt to legitimize Assad’s control over Syria. “The world should no longer stay silent on this and should also no longer put forth the stupid claim that there’s no alternative to this regime," he said. “The Syrian people will find someone to lead them, it’s enough that we save them from Assad and this brutal regime."

That’s a view that has put Turkey into conflict with Russia, Assad’s main battleground backer. Adding to the morass of complex alliances in Syria’s civil war, Russia, along with the U.S., also backs the YPG.

“Unfortunately you look at these two countries and you see them competing not to lose YPG to each other," Cavusoglu said. “You’ve got two superpowers competing over a terrorist organization."

That won’t prevent Turkey from attacking the group, Cavusoglu threatened, saying it was a message he’d conveyed directly to Tillerson “using language that wasn’t diplomatic at all."

“If there’s a threat against us, we’ll do whatever we have to do to destroy it, wherever it may be," he said. “If our allies leave us alone in the fight against terrorism, that’s something else. We’ll continue on our own. We’re not going to shut up and go cry in the corner.

Gulen’s Fate

On other tension points with the U.S., Cavusoglu also expressed cautious optimism. He said he’s personally delivered a file on Fethullah Gulen, the imam Turkey blames for orchestrating the coup attempt from his compound in the Poconos, to Trump’s new Attorney General, Jeff Sessions. Turkey has been pushing for the Trump administration to take measures against Gulen’s organization, which it calls FETO, and Sessions assured him they were investigating, Cavusoglu said.

Turkey is expecting the U.S. to begin an investigation into Gulen’s activities and has requested a “provisional arrest" while judicial authorities look into evidence Turkey supplied on his responsibility for the coup, an allegation that Gulen has denied.

“They do also understand that FETO, Fethullah Gulen and the extradition of FETO is so sensitive for us," Cavusoglu said of his new counterparts in the Trump administration. “They do understand Turkey’s concern and that is what we expect from an ally."

— With assistance by Simin Demokan

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