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Turkish President Erdogan arrives in D.C. tomorrow. Here’s what to watch for.

- May 15, 2017

There is a lot on the line for both Turkey and the United States when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets with President Trump this week. Both men are charismatic populists who believe in the power of personal relations. Both believe that international relations — including relations between longtime allies — are fundamentally transactional. But relations between the two allies have seldom been chillier, and Erdogan is unlikely to return to Ankara satisfied with the result. The real question is how he will respond.

Erdogan’s visit is framed by his recent moves to centralize power at home — and by intensifying disputes over the role of Syrian Kurds in the campaign against the Islamic State. Since a bloody attempted coup in July 2016, the Turkish government has accelerated its crackdown on dissidents of all stripes. The jailing of journalists has received particular attention, but there are many more targeted groups. More than 160 news outlets and hundreds of NGOs have been closed, more than a 100,000 civil servants have been sacked or suspended, over 110,000 people have been detained and nearly 50,000 have been arrested.

In April 2017, Erdogan narrowly won a referendum that creates the presidential system that he had long desired. Despite an uneven playing field and significant evidence of vote rigging, however, Erdogan’s victory was remarkably narrow; despite his victory, the Turkish leader was evincing new signs of political weakness.

In this context, Trump’s early offer of congratulations was seen as a lifeline, bestowing an important signal of international legitimacy. The pro-Justice and Development Party (AKP) news media in Turkey celebrated Trump’s friendship. But for many, it was a troubling choice, which offered support to an authoritarian to no good purpose.

Another theory is that Trump’s phone call to Erdogan was meant to soften the blow of decisions on Syria that would throw U.S.-Turkish relations into crisis. On May 9, the United States announced that it would provide heavy arms to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). There is no papering over the repercussions of this decision: The SDF is dominated by members of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which in turn is Syrian sister organization to the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), which, the Turks quite correctly highlight, is on the U.S. terrorist list. It does so while the PKK is staging attacks against both civilian and military targets within Turkey.

This decision is the natural outcome of U.S. and Turkish decisions in 2013 and 2014. The Obama administration made an early decision to focus its Syria policy on combating the Islamic State. Turkey, for its part, continued to provide haven and material support for sundry Syrian opposition groups in the hopes of overturning the Assad regime, but became increasingly concerned by the expansion of the YPG in northern Syria.

This conflict between these priorities became acute in 2014, when Islamic State fighters besieged the YPG stronghold of Kobane, in northern Syria. Turkey — hoping to break the power of Kobane — stood by, working to prevent Kurds in Turkey from crossing the border to join the fight.

The United States initiated airstrikes, and, with this external support, the YPG was able to break the siege and go on the offensive. From that point on, the United States began working in close coordination with the YPG as its best local allies in Syria. Meanwhile, in Turkey, relations between the government and the Kurds went from bad to worse. Within a year, open warfare between Turkey and the PKK had reignited. In effect, the current crisis is the natural outcome of decisions made in 2014 to focus U.S. policy in Syria on the destruction of the Islamic State and to ally with the Kurdish-dominated SDF as the most effective ground forces available in Syria. Trump’s decision to provide them with heavy arms is less a break from Obama’s policies than a natural outcome of them.

This has been highly controversial inside of Turkey. Across the political spectrum, the Turkish public is apoplectic. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) called on Erdogan to cancel his visit; the secularist newspaper Sözcu, in a banner headline, demanded the same and that Turkey close access to Incirlik, a Turkish air base that has housed NATO forces since the 1950s and has played a key role in the air war against the Islamic State. But Turkey’s position now is exceedingly weak. The Turkish military has been ravaged by repeated purges and is in no position to field a major military operation beyond its borders. Even if it were, a campaign focused on the Islamic State would be politically damaging for the Turkish government. There is little love for ISIS in Turkey, but the liberation of Raqqa is widely seen as “someone else’s problem.”

If Turkey cannot offer a meaningful alternative to the U.S. reliance on the Kurds, it also lacks effective threats to force the Americans to reconsider. It can attempt to open up another front against the Kurds or close access to its air bases as a way of demonstrating its dissatisfaction, but this is unlikely to significantly undermine the campaign against the Islamic State and will merely act to push the U.S. further into the arms of the YPG.

Erdogan could choose to make Turkey’s strategic loss into a political win, with an angry denunciation of the United States. Turkey’s April referendum gave Erdogan the power he has long desired, but it also betrayed deepening fractures within his base. An angry public spat with Trump would do a lot to reestablish Erdogan’s brand at home.

Howard Eissenstat is an associate professor at St. Lawrence University and a senior nonresident fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED).