Despite his anti-Muslim comments and hostility towards immigration, Donald Trump has gained popularity with Turkey’s Islamist government over the past few months. This morning Ankara was one of the few capitals in Europe and the Middle East to have a smile on its face about the results of the U.S. election.
Early in the race the AKP government’s preference was for Hillary Clinton. This was based on the notion that she would have a more assertive posture in Syria and be more amenable to a Turkish-controlled safe zone in northern Syria. But this summer stories emerged in pro-government media alleging donations to the Clinton campaign from followers of Fethullah Gulen, whom the government considers responsible for the July 15 coup attempt. Clinton was thus unofficially dubbed “the Gulenist candidate”.
As if on cue, Donald Trump gave Ankara a gift in late July when asked by the New York Times about the post-coup crackdown in Turkey. He responded, “When it comes to civil liberties, our country has a lot of problems, and I think it’s very hard for us to get involved in other countries… I don’t know that we have a right to lecture.” This was music to Ankara’s ears.
Trump also praised Erdogan’s role in reversing the coup on July 15, “Some people say that it was staged… I don’t think so, but I do give great credit to him [Erdogan] for turning it around. You know, the first hour, it seemed like it was over. Then all of a sudden, and the amazing thing is the one that won that was the people… So that was quite impressive from the standpoint of existing government.”
His comments mirrored Ankara’s own description of the night of July 15 and were perfectly pitched to curry favour with a Turkish government that has been frustrated by less supportive reactions from the Obama administration and Western European governments. Almost overnight, negative stories about Trump’s anti-Muslim stance virtually disappeared from pro-government media outlets.
At a time when relations with the Obama administration are strained due to human rights concerns and the extradition battle over Fethullah Gulen, a Trump presidency and its carefully calculated nonchalance about Turkey’s domestic situation might regenerate Turkey’s ties with Washington.
But the extradition issue will not disappear. This morning Turkish prime minister Binali Yildirim congratulated Trump and called upon him for a speedy extradition of Gulen. “This is what damages our historic relations between the two peoples”, he said. “If you extradite the head of the terrorist group, we would open a new page in the Turkish-US relations.” It is not possible for the incoming U.S. administration to simply package Gulen and send him to Ankara without due process – the matter will ultimately be settled in independent U.S. courts – but Trump has other options if he wants to please Ankara on this issue, such as probes into Gulen-linked schools or NGOs.
Looking beyond bilateral US-Turkey ties, the election result could also have an impact on Ankara’s burgeoning alliance with Vladimir Putin. With Trump essentially regarding Syria as a burden to avoid, Russia would likely emerge as the final arbitrator in northern Syria on all things to do with Turks, Kurds, and ISIS. Even before the election there were signs of things moving in this direction. The heads of Turkey’s armed forces and intelligence services recently visited Moscow to discuss their desire to move further south into Syrian territory and capture the town of al-Bab.
With Trump in the White House Ankara will likely have to work even more closely with Vladimir Putin on regional matters. That might prove tougher than expected, but it is a story for another day. For now, Erdogan and his government will toast the President-elect, and look forward to a ‘new page’ in US-Turkish relations.