U.S. President Donald Trump said: "We have a great friendship as countries. I think we're, right now, as close as we have ever been," last month in New York before the bilateral meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He also praised Erdoğan for his leadership in the region and said Erdoğan was "getting very high marks."
For anyone closely following bilateral Turkish-U.S. affairs, it is an obvious fact that relations are at a historic low. From Turkey's desire to purchase Russian-made S-400 missile defense systems to Pennsylvania-based Fetullah Gülen's sensational extradition case, there are only a couple of accounts, such as the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government's (KRG) independence referendum, on which the two countries have an understanding.
Trump obviously tried to set the tone for the meeting, but also made a public gesture to Turks who are "extremely into protocol," according to a U.S. official. The anti-Americanism is extraordinarily heightened in Turkey, yet Turkish officials would still enjoy nice words fro, the leader of the free world.
A senior Turkish official who briefly talked to the media following the meeting said that they mainly discussed Syria and Iraq, focusing on the disagreement over U.S. collaboration with the PKK terrorist group's Syrian affiliate Democratic Union Party's (PYD) People's Protection Units (YPG) and the KRG independence project in Iraq. Both leaders were completely aligned against the referendum, and the official readouts from both sides underlined this.
However Turkey is still agitated by the U.S. decision to partner with the YPG as a ground force against Daesh in Syria. The Turkish official said Erdoğan brought up the issue of the U.S. sending truckloads of weapons to the YPG during the meeting, yet did not get a satisfying response. U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis most recently tried some confidence-building measures such as providing a list of weapons given to the YPG in a letter to Turkish authorities. Yet Turks are suspicious and tend to make their own measurement in accordance with their observations on the Syrian and Iraqi border.
Erdoğan last week said that he made a proposition to the Americans about Fetullah Gülen, possibly in the same meeting in New York. He offered to release Pastor Andrew Brunson to U.S. custody in return for Gülen. Brunson is accused of aiding and abetting Gülenists and the PKK and is awaiting trial in a Turkish prison. Erdoğan said American officials had refused even to discuss this offer.
Most of the problems Turkish officials complain about currently are about U.S. Congress rather than the White House. Ankara had wanted to purchase a wide range of weapons, including armed drones, smart munitions and a missile defense system, and every time it had to face one or more lawmaker's opposition. On top of this, the Sheridan Circle incident for which Erdoğan's bodyguards have been charged for beating U.S. citizens who were protesting Erdoğan last May further agitated Congress. Now we see some draft bills that are even talking about preventing official visits by Turkish officials to the U.S.
Turks perceive Trump's warm words and praise just as sweetener because they believe he is governing on paper but he is not actually able to do anything due to severe opposition to his rule from the media, Congress and society. Turkish officials closely follow Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Trump's associates, but do not think it would cost Trump his presidency.
A source close to the high levels of the Turkish government explained that Ankara very much believes that the establishment in Washington is targeting Turkey and its president due to his headstrong and independent policy making. Turkish officials, it seems, believe the same group of people and the U.S. bureaucracy are now trying to get to Trump, because he is also an outsider and someone who greatly contradicts the same establishment.
True or not, it is clear that there are questions concerning Trump's ability to deliver anything to Turks, and Turkey would require more than warm words to be convinced otherwise.