Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a US television interview on 20 November that he was “disillusioned” with the Obama administration’s policy in Syria. He separately criticised hostile European responses to Trump’s victory in the US Presidential elections and called for the US poll result to be “respected”. Erdogan was one of the first world leaders to congratulate Trump and downplayed the President-elect’s previous remarks about Muslims.
Erdogan’s comments reflect tensions between Ankara and the Obama administration over US policy in Syria, and particularly over US support for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Ankara views the group as an extension of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and considers it a terrorist organisation. However, the US sees the YPG as the most capable military force opposing Islamic State (IS) in Syria. Tensions rose further after the attempted coup in Turkey in July as the US has rejected subsequent requests to extradite Fethullah Gulen, the US-based cleric whom the Government accuses of orchestrating the coup.
Erdogan’s latest comments reflect Ankara’s view that Turkey stands to benefit domestically and regionally from Trump’s election. This view was likely strengthened by an article published on the eve of the election by the new administration’s National Security Adviser, retired General Michael Flynn. In this, Flynn described Turkey as America’s “strongest ally against [IS], as well as a source of stability in the region”. He also argued that the US should not continue to harbour Gulen, whom he called a radical Islamist, which may indicate that Washington might consider his extradition next year.
Ankara believes that Trump’s main priority in the region will be countering IS and reducing Iran’s influence. Turkey will be crucial to achieving these objectives, given its intervention against IS in Syria and its willingness to play an expanded role in Iraq. The Government therefore believes that the new administration will be more willing to ignore Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian actions in return for Turkey’s help. Furthermore, Trump’s stated intention of improving relations with Russia will likely help to position Ankara as a key player in the region.
Turkish-backed fighters in Syria are therefore likely to step up their attacks on the YPG in the coming weeks (see today’s Syria Report). Ankara will also aim to position itself as an indispensable ally against IS by intensifying its strikes on IS targets, particularly ahead of its proxies’ assault on the strategically important city of al-Bab. In response, IS and the PKK, and its offshoot the Kurdish Freedom Falcons (TAK), are likely to intensify their attacks in Turkey in an effort to deter the Government from further military action in Syria and Iraq. IS attacks may target Westerners and commercial and transport hubs. Kurdish attacks are most likely to focus on Government-linked targets, but these may nonetheless take place in city centres, posing collateral risks to civilians.