- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Trump administration has gone to lengths to ease tensions with Turkey, but the effort hasn’t quelled anti-American sentiment that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is accused of stoking ahead of elections next year.

While Ankara remains a NATO ally, analysts say, Mr. Erdogan increasingly is yielding to Russia while taking a confrontational stance toward the United States in order to appear stronger in the eyes of Turkish voters.

“People in Washington are not aware the extent to which anti-Americanism has been at the core of Erdogan’s political messaging, especially in the run-up to the presidential elections slated for November 2019 in Turkey,” said Aykan Erdemir, a former opposition member of the Turkish parliament.

Mr. Erdemir, now a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, says the Turkish president relies on pro-government media to amplify conspiracy theories that Washington’s support of Syrian Kurds is part of U.S. strategy to foment unrest in Turkey, where fears of Kurdish separatism are widespread.

“Combining anti-Americanism with anti-Kurdish sentiment is a winning formula because you can get almost 80 percent of the Turkish public behind the notion that the U.S. and U.S.-backed Kurds are working together in a global conspiracy to undermine Ankara,” he said. “Erdogan knows pushing this as the main existential security threat facing Turkey will play well with voters.”

Mr. Erdemir, who has emerged as a harsh critic of the Erdogan government’s shift toward authoritarianism in recent years, made the comments in an interview with The Washington Times on Sunday, days after Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said the U.S.-Turkey relationship is “at a bit of a crisis point.”

During a visit to Ankara last week, Mr. Tillerson attempted to put a positive spin on the situation, asserting that “the relationship is too important, it’s too valuable to NATO and our NATO allies … for us not to do anything other than concentrate on how are we going forward.”

Turkey hosts about 1,500 U.S. military personnel, as well as aircraft, and allows Washington to use the Incirlik Air Base — not far from the Syria border — to carry out missions against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

However, uncertainty is mounting over whether Washington and Ankara can overcome strategic differences in Syria, particularly amid Mr. Erdogan’s outrage at Washington’s support of Kurdish forces that his government says are terrorists.

U.S.-Turkish friction has ebbed and flowed since American troops invaded Iraq, which also borders Turkey, in 2003. But the relationship took one of its sharpest downturns last month when Turkish military forces suddenly began a campaign against a U.S.-backed militia in the northern Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin.

The Erdogan government says it is particularly angry over the U.S. military’s support for the People’s Protection Units, a mainly Kurdish group known by the acronym YPG. While Washington for years has relied on the group as a proxy ground force against Islamic State in Syria, Turkey says the YPG is tied to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has factions inside Turkey and has been waging a separatist battle with Ankara since the 1980s.

With that as a backdrop, Mr. Erdogan and his aides have vowed recently to expand the Turkish military operation in Afrin further into Syria toward the town of Manbij — warning U.S. troops stationed there not to get in the way.

With U.S. commanders signaling that they have no plans to withdraw from Manbij, Mr. Erdogan told the Turkish parliament recently that American forces should prepare for an “Ottoman slap.”

Trump administration officials ignored the comment, which the Turkish president made just before Mr. Tillerson’s arrival in Turkey last week. Alternatively, the secretary of state and other Trump officials, including Defense Secretary James Mattis, are seen to be taking care in their rhetoric toward the Erdogan government.

Mr. Mattis told reporters flying back to Washington with him Saturday from a trip to Europe that U.S. officials understand Turkey’s “legitimate security concerns” but that Washington is frustrated by the Turkish incursion into Afrin.

At the same time, the defense secretary said, U.S. officials are “going to work with Turkey” to resolve the situation.

“We have many areas of absolute concurrence,” Mr. Mattis said. “Remember that they are an ally. We work with them. You see France, you see Spain, you see Italy working with them. So this is not an all-one-way issue.”

‘Coordination with Iran and Russia’

Mr. Tillerson emerged from a more than three-hour meeting with Mr. Erdogan late last week saying the two had “a very full discussion of both sides’ concerns, but also a lot of discussion about the future and how we go forward from where we are today.”

But the secretary of state offered few details. He said he called on Turkey to show restraint in its military operation in Afrin and asserted that Washington has been clear with Turkey that American weapons provided to Kurdish forces in Syria are “limited, mission-specific and provided on an incremental basis.”

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said “an agreement and an understanding” were reached during Mr. Tillerson’s visit. He also offered few details, suggesting that the two sides agreed to disagree on the matter of “support that is provided by the United States on YPG and similar organizations, and our expectations pertaining to PKK.”

“There were certain promises that were made, there were certain topics that we discussed, there were certain promises that were not kept, and there were certain issues that we could not resolve,” the Turkish foreign minister said.

In his interview with The Times, Mr. Erdemir warned that the American delegation may have played into the Erdogan government’s hands and that Washington risks miscalculating the extent to which Ankara is shifting from the West.

“Washington needs to take Erdogan’s anti-Americanism seriously, because it will have major repercussions,” he said. “Turkey has already pivoted away from the trans-Atlantic alliance and now has much closer coordination with Iran and Russia.”

But others note that the anti-Americanism has been building for a while and that it got a major push after the failed July 2016 coup attempt in Ankara, which the Erdogan government blamed on followers of 76-year-old Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen.

The former Erdogan ally has been living for more than a decade in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, and the Erdogan government has expressed outrage over Washington’s resistance to arresting and extraditing him.

Henri J. Barkey, a former State Department official who once headed the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, argued in July that the “Turkish press, controlled almost entirely by Erdogan,” was engaging in daily “foreigner bashing” with the targets being “almost exclusively Western.”

“The Turkish leadership is playing hardball,” Mr. Barkey argued in The Atlantic. “It has gone after the Americans because the United States has yet to positively respond to Ankara’s request to extradite Gulen.”

Mr. Erdemir, meanwhile, pointed to the alternative manner in which pro-Erdogan media covers tensions between Turkey and Russia.

“When Turkey has problems with Russia, it tries to find ways of solving it in a diplomatic fashion rather than bringing the problem to the headlines in government media,” he said. “Even when there are major issues with Moscow, Russia is always given the benefit of the doubt and the benefit of diplomatic, behind-the-scenes opportunities to de-escalate.

“But every time there is even a small disagreement with the U.S., it’s always blown out of proportion in pro-government media and almost always leads to a systematic smear campaign against U.S. individuals and institutions,” Mr. Erdemir said. “It’s very important to understand this double standard.

“More importantly, if this current Trend continues, this will no longer just be a pivot by Erdogan; it will be a massive drift by the Turkish public as well,” he said. “Erdogan is basically reorienting the Turkish public away from NATO and really provoking radical anti-American sentiment across the political spectrum.”

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