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3Novices:Trump presidency could rebuild US ties with Turkey

BEIRUT // Donald Trump's election to the White House could considerably improve the United States' strained relations with Turkey and president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, according to signals from both sides.

A top Trump adviser has indicated that the new administration would be willing to meet one of Turkey's main demands: the extradition of a self-exiled Turkish cleric blamed by Ankara for a coup attempt in July.

And despite Mr Trump's anti-Islam campaign rhetoric, Mr Erdogan was among the first world leaders to call and congratulate him after his victory on Wednesday. According to a presidential source who spoke to Turkey's pro-government Daily Sabah newspaper, Mr Erdogan told Mr Trump the allies were bound by "mutual respect, mutual profits and shared values".

The sharp erosion in ties with Turkey, a vital US ally in the war against ISIL, began with Washington's support for the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia - the most effective force fighting the extremists in Syria. Ankara considers the YPG to be a terrorist group and has accused it of sending western-made weapons to Kurdish insurgents in Turkey.

The failed coup in July made things worse, with some in Turkey's government accusing the US of being complicit. Turkey claims the Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former Erdogan ally, was behind the coup attempt and has demanded that the US hand him over. So far the US has not deemed Turkey's evidence sufficient to warrant his arrest and return.

President Barack Obama's administration has also strongly criticised Mr Erdogan's post-coup crackdown on critics, the media and tens of thousands of state employees.

Mr Trump on the other hand gave Mr Erdogan "great credit" for "turning it around" after the coup attempt and said the US was not in a position to criticise Turkey's actions.

On election day, Lt Gen Michael Flynn - a leading Trump adviser and a candidate for secretary of defence in his administration - outlined the need to strengthen the US-Turkey relationship in an article for The Hill. It hinted at the line Mr Trump could take on Turkey.

The retired general ascribed Washington's tensions with Ankara largely to Mr Gulen, who he compared to the father of modern, militant jihadi thought, Sayyid Qutb, Iran's anti-American revolutionary ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden.

"We need to adjust our foreign policy to recognise Turkey as a priority," Gen Flynn wrote. "We need to see the world from Turkey's perspective. What would we have done if right after September 11 we heard news that Osama bin Laden lives in a nice villa at a Turkish resort while running 160 charter schools funded by Turkish taxpayers?"

The implicit suggestion that the US should extradite Mr Gulen will please Turkey, which requested the cleric's arrest and return once again in a congratulatory message to the president-elect.

Beyond suggesting that Mr Gulen was a danger to Turkey - and perhaps to the US, with his references to past enemies such as Bin Laden - Gen Flynn also seemed to downplay Turkey's post-coup repression, which has extended to Mr Erdogan's political opponents.

"If he [Mr Gulen] were in reality a moderate, he would not be in exile, nor would he excite the animus of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government," Gen Flynn wrote, ignoring the many moderates who have found themselves in jail or in flight after criticising Turkey's leader.

The indications that Mr Trump's administration might be willing to turn more of a blind eye to rising authoritarianism and possible rights abuses in Turkey in exchange for a stronger relationship fit in with his earlier statements that "we need allies, we're not going to lecture them about what they do inside their borders".

Relations during Mr Obama's administration have been so tense at times that Turkey has threatened to suspend America's use of Incirlik airbase, a move that deal a huge blow to US strategic interests in the region and to the fight against ISIL. Better ties would mean such disruptions should no longer be a concern.

However, it is not clear how Mr Trump, who made crushing ISIL a key pledge of his campaign, will respond to Turkish calls for the US to stop supporting the YPG. The group is the dominant force in the US-backed coalition of Syrian fighters now advancing on the extremists' stronghold of Raqqa.

Mr Trump has also been highly critical of Nato, of which Turkey is also a member, and could upset Ankara if he distances the US from the military alliance.

It also remains to be seen whether Mr Trump acts on his anti-Islam rhetoric and threat to restrict the entry of Muslims into the country, something that would upset Turkey's Islamist leader.

In June, Mr Erdogan said Mr Trump had "no tolerance for Muslims in America" and called for the Trump Towers in Istanbul to lose Mr Trump's name.

And back in February, as Russia increasingly accused Turkey of colluding with ISIL, Mr Trump told the conservative Breitbart News website that "Turkey looks like they're on the side of [ISIL], more or less based on the oil".

But Mr Erdogan has shown he is capable of putting past unpleasantness aside. In December last year Russia and Turkey appeared to be on the warpath but the Turkish president has since managed to re-establish ties with the Kremlim.

jwood@thenational.ae



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