As President Trump continues his tour of Saudi Arabia and Israel, neither Trump nor the Western media seem aware of the growing anger in Turkey at the shabby treatment Turkish President Erdogan received from his hands during his visit to Washington last week.
That the meeting did not go well was obvious from the tense atmosphere and absence of any meeting of minds on the Kurdish issue visible from Trump’s and Erdogan’s joint news conference – a fact previously pointed out by my colleague Adam Garrie. It is absolutely clear that the Trump administration – firmly focused on defeating ISIS before all else – is going to go ahead with arming the Kurds to fight ISIS irrespective of any Turkish concerns.
That was perhaps predictable, just as it was probably also predictable that the US would fail to respond to Turkish requests for the extradition of the exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen whom Erdogan and the Turkish government (wrongly in my opinion) hold responsible for the coup attempt last year.
However what was not predictable, and what was catastrophically misjudged, was the boorish and rude treatment extended to Erdogan whilst he was in Washington.
It turns out that the entire meeting between Erdogan and Trump lasted for no more than 22 minutes. Given the need for translation of what each one said to the other, it is unlikely there was enough time to go beyond basic pleasantries.
The news conference which then followed also lasted for no more than 20 minutes. My colleague Adam Garrie has already commented on how disengaged Trump was during the news conference, with Erdogan doing most of the talking. It now turns out that the US government’s interpreter who was translating Erdogan’s words during the news conference botched the job so that Erdogan’s comments were translated incorrectly, giving Trump and the US media in the room an incorrect idea of the things Erdogan was saying.
Needless to say the Turkish journalists who were present – many of whom speak English – and the Turkish public at home – many of whom also speak English and who would have been following the news conference on television – would have been aware of this mistake.
This is astonishingly cavalier treatment of Erdogan, who appears to have attached great hopes that with Obama gone relations between Turkey and the US would turn a new page. He must have been shocked at being treated in this off-hand way.
Whatever views one might have of Erdogan – and I happen to think him volatile, untrustworthy and unpredictable – he is the President of Turkey, a key NATO ally and a major power, with a population of 80 million people, which is strategically located, spanning Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia. Even many Turks who do not like Erdogan (and there are many of them) will be appalled at the disrespect shown to their country’s leader. As it happens it seems such indignation in Turkey is widespread. A description of the meeting by a Turkish journalist published by the US based Middle East news site Al-Monitor is scathing.
As for Erdogan himself, despite the often difficult relationship he has with Putin, he cannot have failed to notice the contrast between the care and respect the Russians always show him – and the huge amount of time they give to him – and the contemptuous and disrespectful way he is being treated not just by Donald Trump but by the other leaders of the West.
Compare for example the cavalier treatment Erdogan received from Trump in Washington with the courteous and patient way Putin explained Russia’s policy towards the Kurds during his recent press conference in Beijing, and the care that Putin took during that press conference to show sensitivity to Erdogan’s and Turkey’s concerns.
I discussed this matter with the Turkish President. He expressed his concerns in this respect during our meeting in Sochi. I said to him then and I can say publicly now that there is no secret here. Unlike other countries, we have not declared any intention of supplying arms to Kurdish fighters. They do not have any great need for our supplies in any case, as they have other supply channels. We do not see any need to get involved in arms supplies.
But the Kurds are a real factor in the situation in Syria and their fighters are taking part in operations against the so-called Islamic State and are among the most combat-ready groups; therefore, we think it perfectly justified to maintain working contacts with them, if only to avoid possible confrontation and situations that could pose a threat to our service personnel.
I do not see anything here that could give our Turkish partners cause for concern. We are in contact, our position is open, and I hope that our Turkish partners understand it too. I am aware of the Turkish President’s concerns – and we discussed this yesterday – over the United States’ announcement that it will supply arms to the Kurds. We do not do this.
It is not only the Russians who treat Erdogan with the respect and courtesy befitting of a leader of a country which is a great regional power. Erdogan was also present along with Putin at the One Belt, One Road conference in Beijing, where he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping and other leaders, and where – as Putin’s comment shows – he also exchanged words with Putin himself.
I have repeatedly expressed skepticism about suggestions that Erdogan’s recent rapprochement with Russia signals a major realignment of Turkey away from its traditional alliance with the West towards Russia and China. I still remain of that view. However with their boorish treatment of Erdogan it seems the leaders of the West are going out of their way to prove me wrong.
Should Turkey ever realign away from the West contrary to my expectations and – as I still believe – contrary to Erdogan’s wishes, then future historians will no doubt say it was because the West drove it away.
Given Turkey’s size and importance that seems a bizarre thing to do, but it seems the West’s leaders – including the ‘realist’ Donald Trump – are prepared to test the West’s relations with Turkey to the point of destruction and perhaps beyond it.