President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is in New York this week, leading a delegation, to attend the U.N. General Assembly's 74th session. After meeting civil society leaders and think tanks Sunday, Erdoğan held a series of talks with world leaders on Monday. Yesterday, he addressed the General Assembly, delivering a speech akin to his 2014 address. The Turkish president coined the phrase "The world is bigger than five" that year, and remains one of the few leaders to highlight global injustices and the plight of war victims. In doing so, Erdoğan tells the world about the problems of non-Western societies and, of course, the Muslim world.
The Turkish leader closely monitors a range of issues, including the refugee crisis, the fight against terrorism, and Islamophobia. He was the most vocal critic of efforts to challenge Jerusalem's legal status, the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the 2013 coup d'état in Egypt. Erdoğan does not stop at paying lip service to those issues either. He happens to be the president of Turkey, the world's top humanitarian donor per capita. In Palestine, Rakhine State and Kashmir, Erdoğan sides with justice and peaceful resolutions to conflicts. Relying on leader-to-leader diplomacy, he does not hesitate to criticize the great powers responsible for the current world order.
Indeed, bilateral meetings on the General Assembly's margins are of utmost importance. The Turkish president is among the world leaders making the most out of his annual trips to New York. This year, Erdoğan will discuss the fate of refugees and the proposed safe zone in northeastern Syria with the leaders of Germany, France, Italy and others. Never mind that Manfred Weber, the leader of the European People's Party in the European Parliament, threatens Turkey's economy. Europe grows more and more dependent on Turkey – be it to stem the next wave of migration across the Aegean Sea, to remain part of negotiations over Eastern Mediterranean energy reserves, or the balance of power with Russia. German Chancellor Angela Merkel knows that better than anyone does. Therefore, sources note that Erdoğan's bilateral meeting with Merkel could break new ground on the refugee issue as well as with visa liberalization. Obviously, the Turkish leader's most important meeting will be with U.S. President Donald Trump. Prior to his trip to New York, Erdoğan made public his intentions to launch an operation into northeastern Syria by the end of September.
That deadline suggests that the Turkish president will ask Trump to clarify Washington's position on the proposed safe zone. It also shows that Erdoğan would like to go over things with the U.S. president before giving the green light to deploy troops across the Turkish-Syrian border. After all, it is up to the two leaders to put the final touches on the safe zone agreement. Erdoğan views Trump as an honest broker but does not feel the same way towards other U.S. officials. As such, he would like to renegotiate terms with his counterpart, enabling Turkey to address its security concerns and facilitate the return of Syrian refugees to their country. Finally, Erdoğan would like Trump to instruct his team, in no uncertain terms, to deliver the 32-kilometer safe zone.
Meanwhile, the U.S. president is already busy with his re-election campaign. In addition to addressing crowds around the country, Trump is grappling with allegations that his administration pressured Ukraine to pursue investigations into his political opponents. The U.S. president also finds himself under fire over his comments about Democratic hopeful Joe Biden and his family's business affairs. More and more observers claim that the Democrats can take back the White House in the 2020 election, but sitting presidents winning re-election has traditionally been a near-permanent feature of American politics. Still, Trump faces no easy battle.
At this critical juncture, mutual trust and sympathy between Erdoğan and Trump remain at the heart of any effort to manage bilateral tensions. Leader-to-leader diplomacy alone can help Turkey and the U.S. overcome the S-400 crisis, facilitate the former's readmission into the F-35 fighter jet program, promote a mutually acceptable solution in northern Syria, oversee the transformation of the People's Protection Units (YPG), make progress in the fight against the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) and increase the bilateral trade volume to $100 billion.Here's the bottom line: before the U.S. Congress gets back to business and the election campaign heats up, Erdoğan and Trump can breathe new life into Turkey-U.S. relations by meeting in person and making meaningful progress on a couple of issues.