The Trump administration’s decision May 9 to provide arms to the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) does not bode well for the meeting between US President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Washington on May 16.
On a visit to Washington last week, Erdogan’s closest national security advisers could not dissuade their US counterparts from taking the widely anticipated step, which Turkey has vehemently opposed. Ankara regards the YPG as the Syrian extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which both Ankara and Washington consider a terrorist organization.
While Erdogan’s hope for a new page in US-Turkey relations may have been buoyed by Trump's being the only Western leader to congratulate him on his April 16 referendum victory, the prospects for a successful summit will depend on bromides about US-Turkey solidarity against both the Islamic State and the PKK. In Syria, keeping Turkey from complicating the US strategy to take Raqqa may, as we noted last week, depend in good part on Moscow’s good offices.
In addition to seemingly irreconcilable differences over the YPG, Semih Idiz writes, “Erdogan’s second major demand will be the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, the self-exiled Islamic cleric who resides in Pennsylvania and whom Erdogan accuses of masterminding last year's failed coup against him. … This campaign — which is also criticized strongly by independent Turkish analysts — is expected to strengthen the hand of Gulen’s legal team and make it harder for Trump to make an executive decision regarding Gulen’s extradition.”
Idiz concludes, “Erdogan has played his hand and is not open to compromises. The onus, therefore, is on Trump to come up with face-saving formulas for Erdogan while maintaining US policies that are unlikely to change. If this can’t be done, Turkish-US ties will face even more turbulence, as many are already predicting they will.”
Saudis will press Trump on Iran
Bruce Riedel explains what we can expect from Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia later this month.
“Iran is [King] Salman's top issue,” writes Riedel. “This month, Saudi Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman gave an interview condemning Iran in extremely harsh sectarian terms. The prince, the king's favorite son, characterized the Iranian Islamic Republic as being driven by messianic prophecies and determined to dominate the entire Islamic community. He claimed that Iran sought to take control of Mecca from the kingdom. There was no room for dialogue with Tehran, according to his statement. Indeed, the prince promised that the kingdom will fight its war against Iran inside Iran, not in Saudi Arabia. He was vague about what that means, but it suggests he supports regime change in Tehran. It was one of the most virulent public attacks on Iran ever by the House of Saud.”
In response to the prince’s interview, Iran’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Gholamali Khoshroo, filed a letter of protest to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on May 2 that read: “Our region and the world have suffered tremendously as a consequence of Saudi insecurity and misplaced obsession with Iran. … It is imperative for the international community to take necessary action to compel Saudi Arabia to stop its reckless sponsorship of terrorism and extremism in the region and across the globe, and particularly its blatant and open aggression, starvation and genocide against the people of Yemen.”
Riedel adds, “The royal family is eager for American support against Iran in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. The Saudi leaders face a more skeptical domestic audience. The new Trump administration is widely seen by the public in the Arab world as an enemy of Islam. A poll of Saudis in November showed overwhelming support for Hillary Clinton and only 6% for Trump. There will be no demonstrations against the president in a police state, but the palace will not want to be seen as failing to defend Muslim rights, especially when it comes to Jerusalem.”
Ibrahim al-Hatlani writes, “An informed source in the GCC Secretariat General told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, ‘Despite Trump’s friendly discourse toward Saudi Arabia in his recent speech, some Gulf countries believe that he will bring up the defense money issue again, perhaps more diplomatically, in front of the GCC leaders in Saudi Arabia. Since Gulf governments still rely on US protection [and have] for decades now, they cannot but consign to Washington’s demands and pay their dues.’”
Riedel concludes, “There will be agreement on fighting terror, including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Behind the scenes, the Saudis will want some administration action to prevent legal action against the kingdom via the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA). Numerous lawsuits have been filed alleging Saudi responsibility for 9/11. The Saudis will note that the CIA just awarded Crown Prince and Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef the George Tenet medal for fighting terrorism. How can a medal winner be a sponsor of terror?”
The Sinjar fault line
Another possible fault line in US-Turkey — and Turkey-Iraq — relations is the prospect of further Turkish military intervention against the PKK and in Sinjar.
Dilshad Abdullah writes, “Iraqi officials and authorities have been stressing the need for diplomacy to deal with any Turkish intervention in Iraq following April 25 air raids by Turkish forces on the PKK headquarters in the Sinjar Mountains.” Adding to the complexity of the situation are the Sinjar Defense Units, which are composed of Yazidis and backed by the Iraqi government, and alleged to be linked and trained by the PKK. Although the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is allied with Turkey, the Turkish air raids killed five peshmerga forces, provoking a rebuke from the KRG.
Hamas cracks down on journalists
Ahmed Abu Amer reports, “On April 26, the Ministry of Interior in Gaza launched a crackdown against what it described as 'propagandists.' During this unprecedented move, 17 Palestinian journalists and activists were arrested for several hours before being released after pledging not to publish news about internal Palestinian affairs before verifying it with official sources.”
Abu Amer adds, “The crackdown came in the wake of escalating disputes between President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas, and only a day after the Gaza Interior Ministry threatened to take decisive action against social media propagandists, saying, ‘Some activists deliberately spread rumors on social media in order to stir up confusion among Palestinian citizens.’”