It’s not his fault.
That is Donald Trump’s assessment of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s belligerence in the face of US demands that Ankara back away from plans to purchase Russian-made S-400 missile systems or face expulsion from the F-35 program and, potentially, sanctions.
As any EM observer knows, the S-400 question is one the lingering geopolitical landmines for Turkey at a time when a stumbling economy and persistent questions about central bank independence continue to foster volatility.
On the bright side, democracy is alive in the country. Ekrem Imamoglu emerged triumphant in the Istanbul re-run on June 23 and, more importantly, Erdogan let the results stand. The vote marks the first time Istanbul won’t be held by Erdogan’s party (or its predecessor) in a quarter century. By extension, it was the first time Istanbul fell to the opposition since Erdogan rose to power.
That’s not great for Erdogan, but it’s good news for Turkey and it’s at least possible that if he’s willing to concede defeat in local elections, he might give some ground when it comes to letting the central bank do its job on the way to restoring investor confidence.
Read more: In Turkey, Democracy Lives
With the Istanbul re-run out of the way, the S-400 dispute is the next big stumbling block. Erdogan has variously insisted that the deal with the Kremlin is done and that he will, against all odds, have his cake and eat it too, where that means taking delivery of the Russian systems, keeping Turkey in the F-35 program and avoiding sanctions.
Although that still seems like an absurdly arrogant (and highly unrealistic) assessment, Erdogan’s meeting with Trump made it more plausible. In Osaka, during his chat with Erdogan, Trump expressed a desire to rethink the sanctions threat. Predictably, he blamed the Obama administration for not selling Ankara Patriot systems and said it’s not “fair” to hit a NATO ally with sanctions.
“We have a very complicated situation because the president was not allowed to buy the Patriot missiles”, Trump said. “You can’t do business that way. It’s not good.”
Apparently, Trump has a short memory. His administration slapped sanctions on Turkey 11 months ago amid the Andrew Brunson debacle and, last August, Trump had a meltdown on Twitter and doubled metals tariffs on Ankara at a time when the lira was already careening towards a crisis.
But all of that was forgiven and forgotten in Q4, after Erdogan released Pastor Brunson and essentially threatened to expose Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed for the murderous dictator that he is using the voluminous evidence Turkey gathered at the Istanbul consulate where Jamal Khashoggi was killed and dismembered by a Saudi hit squad in early October.
By December, Erdogan was back on good enough terms with Trump to convince the US president to pull troops from Syria, which, of course, opened the door for Erdogan to summarily slaughter the YPG (the Kurdish forces who fought alongside the US in Syria against ISIS, and who Erdogan equates with the PKK, his mortal enemy).
During his post-G20 press conference, Trump essentially took credit for convincing Erdogan not to “wipe out” the YPG once the US started pulling its troops from Syria. He also attempted to navigate the troubled waters around the sanctions issue. Have a listen:
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That, frankly, is all kinds of ridiculous. Trump is giving Erdogan credit for not committing genocide. But, if you can get past that, you’ll note that Trump doesn’t really answer the question, probably because he doesn’t know how his administration plans to deal with this quite yet.
For his part, Erdogan says he received assurances there would be no sanctions. “We have heard from [Trump] personally that this would not happen”, Erdogan said. “We are strategic partners with the United States. As strategic partners, nobody has the right to meddle in Turkey’s sovereign rights. Everyone should know this.”
“Typical Trump – giving Erdogan a face saving solution to back out of S-400 purchase”, BlueBay’s Tim Ash remarked. “I still cannot see F-35s delivered if the S-400 in situated in Turkey. And if Trump [goes] soft on sanctions… Congress will act”, he added.
Trump wrapped up his comments about Turkey by mocking the media. “Honestly… it’s not really Erdogan’s fault”, Trump said, before breaking into a derisive impression of cable news: “Now we have breaking news, Donald Trump loves Turkey”.