Trump presidency: Quo vadis Turkey-US relations in Mideast?

Menekse Tokyay

Published: Updated:

Barack Obama’s being elected President of the United States had raised the hopes for elevating US-Turkey cooperation to a new level. Barack Obama wanted to reach out to the Muslim world and wanted to showcase the strong relationship with Turkey as a source of inspiration to other Muslim nations.

However due to the divergence of perceptions and priorities of the two countries after the initial phase of the Arab uprisings, these hopes never materialized. As a matter of fact, as the Obama administration is coming to an end, the US-Turkey relationship has been reduced to a transactional cooperation based on mutual distrust.

In the new period starting with Trump presidency, Turkey and the US may agree to disagree, while still holding fast the essentials of their longstanding partnership. Considering Trump’s preference toward easing pressure on Turkey over human rights abuses is also a sign for closer relations between the two leaders.

“Turkey is the US’ most important ally in the region. We will bring our relations with Turkey to a better stance just like in the old days,” US Vice President Mike Pence said in the early hours of Nov. 9.

No clear foreign policy

Donald Trump’s not so much expected election victory has sent shock waves across the Atlantic due to some of his views, which he has revealed during his election campaign on foreign policy. Turks are also trying to figure out the implications of Trump’s presidency on US-Turkey cooperation, particularly in the Middle East.

He would like the US to play less of a world leadership role and he will be reluctant to mobilize the US military unless it is directly about national interests

Menekse Tokyay

Putting oneself in Trump’s “stylish” shoes, the foreign policy approaches he proposed during his candidacy campaign would inevitably influence Turkey’s Mideast policy since he considers the region strategically less important then it used to be. Talking on Turkish state TV, Erdogan’s top adviser Yigit Bulut argued that Trump will support Turkey’s Mideast leadership.

In fact, Trump does not have any clear foreign policy positions yet, while he does have some pretty clear approaches to foreign policy. The extent to which these approaches will translate into foreign policy positions will depend on what kind of a foreign policy team President-elect Trump will be able to build and his transition team will give us an idea of this.

Trump’s strongest view on foreign policy is that the world leadership role it is playing is too costly for the United States and as a businessman he wants to cut costs. Therefore he would like the US to play less of a world leadership role and he will be reluctant to mobilize the US military unless it is directly about national interests. So, Turkey will see a decreased presence of the US in its neighborhood.

Trump’s lack of enthusiasm for foreign policy activism also leads him to mutual accommodation rather than confrontation with Russia. More disturbing approaches are about immigration and Muslims. President-Elect Trump has proposed building wall on the Mexican border to prevent Latino immigrants and not allowing Muslims entering the US

While these are his general approaches to foreign policy, he has been somewhat more specific on two countries: Iran and Syria. Trump has severely criticized the deal with Iran and pledged to suspend it. This is a decision that would easily find support in the US Congress and change the balances in the Mideast once again. He tends to diminish the crises in Syria to ISIS and hopes to solve it by continuing to arm local proxies and cooperating with Russia.

Fighting ISIS

Any halt of the US-led international coalition against ISIS is not expected in the near future, and Turkey’s strategic importance for allowing the coalition forces to use its southern base of Incirlik will therefore continue.

A synthesis of the approaches of Trump and those of his future foreign policy tram could lead us to a unilateralist US that will be active in the Mideast through proxies. As Trump and his team agree on being cautious towards Islamist groups, these proxies could be limited to governments they can agree with and non-state actors that are not Islamist.

The prime example for the latter would be Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) considered as a terrorist group by both the US and Turkey. But it is the only credible local partner on the ground against ISIS in Syria and Trump overtly declared that “he is a fan of the Kurdish forces” - a move that might harm the relations.

The fact that Trump calls for stronger ties with Israel might also be an opportunity to Turkey to advance its rapprochement process with Tel Aviv and to propose potential cooperation avenues involving this trio. Turkey and Israel are about to mutually appoint ambassadors within a short period of time.

While this is a very early assessment, there are reasons to believe that the divergence of perspectives and priorities on the Middle East might become more acute during the presidency of Donald Trump.

Positive messages coming from the Trump team have raised expectations in Turkey about US-Turkey cooperation. Let us hope that these expectations pass the test of the realities on the ground, as stronger cooperation between the two countries would bring very positive results in the Middle East.

Menekse Tokyay is an international correspondent based in Turkey.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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