President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan set off for Japan after shooting himself in the foot in the lead up to the Istanbul elections. Without a doubt, his meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump will be the most closely monitored development at the G-20 summit in Japan from Ankara’s eyes.
Trump is known for being allergic to “losers”. We will see whether Trump might want to take advantage of Erdoğan’s mood after the Turkish leader lost Istanbul’s mayoral elections after pushing for them to be repeated, this time by a far bigger margin than the first vote.
This is the first time Erdoğan has been this powerless before a one-on-one meeting with Trump.
First, nearly all of Turkey’s big cities declared that they didn’t want him in the March 31 local elections. Now, Erdoğan’s former friends Abdullah Gül and Ali Babacan – who are known as popular leaders in the West – are about to come into the open after smelling blood.
Erdoğan is currently too busy trying to keep his party intact. Establishment of a new party or parties, in addition to the phenomenon of Ekrem İmamoğlu, the new opposition mayor of Istanbul, will keep shaking the ground under him.
After all, despite having all the government’s resources on his side and 90 percent of the media, be it public or private, nearly every move he makes backfires. The public no longer likes him or his tactics. And the whole world witnessed this just last Sunday.
Ahead of the meeting with Trump, Erdoğan is also alone in the region. Assistance from Russia is needed when it comes to the fragile Turkish presence in Syria. Despite the efforts of the U.S. Special Representative for Syria Engagement, James Jeffrey, regarding a long planned safe zone in the Eastern Euphrates, an agreement does not seem to be coming in the near future, if at all.
The United States continues to support the Kurdish militias in Syria that Ankara counts as enemies due to their links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Because of the unpredictable actions shown by the Turkish leader, who has threatened to pivot toward Russia, the United States may consider investing even more in the Kurds in the coming period.
Given Turkey’s shift toward Russia through the purchase of the S-400 air defence systems, it won’t be surprising if the Kurdish option gains even more emphasis in Washington.
Not that Erdoğan will be able to easily change tack in Syria, given his current options there.
The Syrian regime’s forces on June 27 targeted an area located near a Turkish observation post in Idlib in north west Syria killing one Turkish soldier and injuring three, just ahead of Erdogan’s scheduled meetings with Trump as well as Russian President Vladimir Putin, who perhaps wants to send new signals about how İdlib and other areas under Turkish control could become sources of serious trouble for Ankara if the conflict heats up.
Erdoğan is also standing alone against nearly every actor in the Eastern Mediterranean region. His statements at a press conference at the airport regarding the region were striking. The deployment of drilling vessels, battleships, and S-400s to the Mediterranean coast gives the impression that the seas are to be invaded by Turks. Against Turkey are Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Egypt, and the United States.
Qatar is also involved in this energy war, but even it appears to be on the opposing side to its close allies in Ankara.
This time, the United States has departed from its traditionally neutral stance and is giving the Greek side increasingly strong backing. Likewise, the EU is considering an embargo against Turkey for drilling in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The phone calls and conversations between Trump and Erdoğan have generally been positive. One of the most powerful members of the U.S. Senate – whom I met by chance in the same room before appearing on a live program in which I participated in Washington – who often goes to Ankara told me, “There are two people in Washington who are good with Erdoğan: Trump and me.” This was right after the local elections in Turkey at the beginning of April.
If there was a chance that Congress and other U.S. institutions would listen to him, Trump would likely be a leader who could get on very well with Erdoğan. But Trump – unlike Erdoğan – does not have the power of a sultan with the bureaucracy at his disposal. His hands are tied in Congress, and he continues fighting with other U.S. institutions.
Maybe because he wants to appear to have that power, or maybe when there isn’t much he can do, Trump answers every request from Erdoğanduring their meetings with overblown promises.
Thus, in November 2018, Trump made a promise during a phone call with Erdoğan to pull U.S. forces out of northern Syria, and the next month he appeared to honour that promise when he announced a full withdrawal.
But Trump has near enough pulled a 180 since then, a consequence of the demands of U.S. institutions, and Erdoğan has been left disappointed.
It would therefore be wise to approach any statements about a deal between the that come fresh from the Osaka meeting pair – for instance, on a delay to sanctions for Turkey’s S-400 purchase – with extreme care until there is confirmation from U.S. institutions.
During the press conference he gave on his way to Japan, the Turkish leader again stressed his good relations with Trump and said he had not got the impression from the U.S. president that he intended to bring sanctions on Turkey. Instead, Erdoğan blamed Trump’s subordinates for causing the problems.
The same day, Mark Esper, the U.S. Acting Secretary of Defense, reminded Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar of the economic repercussions if the S-400 deal takes place.
Blaise Mitzsal, a Turkey expert at Hudson Institute, spoke to Ahval during the week and said that in an optimistic scenario, Erdoğan would compromise on delaying the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) embargo.
If that were to happen, however, according to one Washington expert, U.S. Congress can be expected to act quickly and enact other embargo draft laws. There is simply nothing left to counterbalance the anger towards Erdoğan felt at Congress, because there is no friend of Erdogan left there.
The consensus in Washington is clear, that the F-35s will not arrive in Turkey as long as the S-400 deal remains on the table.
Erdoğan was expected to pull a rabbit out of his hat before the do-over of Istanbul’s mayoral elections, which he had taken into his own hands.
Either no rabbit came out, or whatever did come out backfired badly (i.e. the letter from jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan urging Kurdish voters to abstain). The magician appears to be fast losing his skills, his art, his trust, and everyone has witnessed it.
Those who expect Erdoğan to perform miracles at Osaka and convince the U.S. government over the F-35s or any other regional issue should not be surprised if they encounter the same result.