Opinion | David Phillips

When Trump meets Erdogan

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his son Bilal Erdogan onstage at the Istanbul Youth Festival on May 4.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his son Bilal Erdogan onstage at the Istanbul Youth Festival on May 4. OZAN KOSEOZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images

President Trump was the first world leader to congratulate Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan for winning the constitutional referendum on April 16, which international monitors decried as a sham. In his congratulatory phone call, Trump shocked his national security advisers by inviting Erdogan for an official visit to the White House this week. Beyond a hug and handshake, Erdogan will go home empty handed.

Erdogan has untenable demands. He insists the US abandon Syrian Kurdish fighters, the “People’s Protection Units,” or YPG. He wants the extradition from the United States of Fatulleh Gulen, whom he accuses of masterminding last summer’s attempted coup. Erdogan will demand that the Justice Department drop charges against Reza Zarrab for allegedly helping Iran evade sanctions.


In a blow to US-Turkish relations, the White House just announced US plans to directly arm the YPG with heavy and offensive weapons. Arming the YPG is the right move.

The YPG has proven itself on Syria’s battlefield as America’s most effective ally in combating ISIS. Its 40,000 fighters are on the frontline, advancing on the ISIS capitol of Raqqa. The United States provides weapons and air support to the YPG. About 500 US special forces are on-the-ground in Syria.

Erdogan calls the YPG a terrorist organization. He insists they are a branch of the PKK, a Kurdish insurgency in Turkey seeking greater political and cultural rights.

Arming the YPG is harbinger of a broader disagreement between the US and Turkey on ending Syria’s civil war.

Russia, Turkey, and Iran are convening Syrians in Astana, Kazakhstan. At Turkey’s insistence, however, Syrian Kurds are excluded.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov offered a peace plan for Syria, which devolves power from Damascus to the regions. Under this plan, local autonomy would involve extensive power-sharing in the fields of governance, security, and control of natural resources.


Turkey adamantly opposes Lavrov’s plan. It rejects devolution of power to contiguous territories in Afrin, Kobani, and Jazeera provinces — a region Syrian Kurds call “Rojava” — as a precursor to fragmentation.

Fethullah Gulen is another sticking point.

Erdogan demands Gulen’s extradition to face terrorism charges in Turkey. In Trump’s transactional world, the United States might offer Gulen to compensate for the Pentagon’s continued cooperation with the Kurds. However, extradition is supposed to be a legal matter, not a political choice. Extradition will be based on evidence and judicial independence.

The decision to extradite will be decided by a US judge. The trial will be a platform for Gulen to divulge secrets about his political and business partnership with Erdogan. If the judge decides to extradite, Gulen can appeal.

The case of Reza Zarrab is also a top priority for Erdogan.

Zarrab is a dual Turkish-Iranian national accused of money laundering to help Iran evade US sanctions on Iran. Erdogan and Zarrab are thick as thieves. When Zarrab and other Erdogan cronies were arrested for corruption in 2013, Erdogan arranged for the police, prosecutors and judges in the case to be dismissed. Zarrab has a lot of dirt on the corrupt and criminal activities of Erdogan, his son Bilal, and son-in-law Berat Albayrak.

Even if Trump wanted to pull the plug on Zarrab’s trial, it would be hard to do. The trial is set for August. Trump does not want to be seen undermining the administration of justice for an Iran sanctions evader.


Trump and Erdogan will find common ground in their disdain for the media, nationalist views, and political populism. But when it comes to matters of substance, Trump will not accede to Erdogan’s demands. Kow-towing would be a sign of weakness, undermining US interests in Syria and Turkey.

David L. Phillips is director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He served as a senior adviser and foreign affairs expert at the US State Department. His new book is “An Uncertain Ally: Turkey Under Erdogan’s Dictatorship.”