US President Donald Trump has congratulated Turkey's president on his referendum win. The move once again reflects the unclear course the US and Turkey are taking in the Middle East.
The warning was followed by good wishes. The Turkish people had just given their consent to the constitutional reform launched by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when the US State Department called on the Turkish government to respect the rule of law in the country.
"We look to the government of Turkey to protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of all its citizens," declared Mark Toner, the acting spokesperson for the State Department. He went on to say that the US "supports democratic development, to which the rule of law and free media remain essential."
Shortly thereafter, President Donald Trump reached for the phone and struck a completely different tone. He congratulated the Turkish president on his referendum victory. No further details on the conversation were revealed. However, according to the "Washington Post" newspaper, the call indicated that the referendum's outcome and the questionable conduct of the referendum campaign would not hurt the relationship between the two states. International election observers monitoring the Turkish referendum criticized the fact that more approval was shown for the proposed presidential system in an unequal campaign.
But this criticism does not seem to play a great role in Washington. The Washington Post presumes that Turkey's strategic importance is far too great for the US administration to change its course. Gonul Tol, head of the Middle East Institute's Center for Turkish Studies in Washington, told the Post, "I don't think the administration will be concerned about problems with Turkish democracy." The new government signaled right from the beginning that it would work together with its partners he said, "but aside from that, they won't interfere in a country's domestic matters."
Trump against Putin
Domestic matters apparently played no role in the phone call between Trump and Erdogan. It was later revealed that both presidents spoke about future action in Syria. Trump apparently thanked Erdogan for supporting the US missile strike on the Syrian military's Shayrat airbase on April 7.
The political message Trump was sending through his strike against Syria remains unclear. Joe Macaron, a policy analyst at the Arab Center in Washington, is of the opinion that the message was meant for Russian President Vladimir Putin. In an online column for Qatari news outlet Al Jazeera English, he wrote that Trump wanted to test Putin's loyalty to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The US government apparently raised the moral cost of Russia's support for the Syrian government. This way, it was able to test the extent to which Putin would confront the US in order to keep Assad in power.
However, Macaron expects that the semblance of a confrontational course will not last long. "Putin wants to look strong at home and defying Washington is the ultimate national sport, while Trump is eager to gain much-needed anti-Putin credentials. Both leaders will get over this at some point," he wrote.
Feigned opposition to Assad
Macaron added that this stance is dangerous, as it misleads the Syrian opposition forces into believing that they have the support of the US government. The missile strike itself encouraged Assad's opponents to continue fighting. Without additional support for their cause, the fighting would only prolong the war and lead to more bloodshed. Assad's opponents are now beginning to realize this.
Washington's political indecisiveness is also dangerous for Turkey. The government in Ankara follows a zigzag course of its own. On the one hand, it works closely with Russia on Syria. This was evident, for example, in the peace conference in Kazakhstan's capital, Astana, which was run by Russia and Turkey at the end of January this year. At the same time, however, Ankara seeks close collaboration with Washington, despite the fact that the superpowers have conflicting views about the political future of Assad.
Caught between different fronts?
Writing for "Al-Monitor," the online magazine for politics in the Middle East, Turkish security analyst Metin Gurcan said that Turkey risks getting caught between the different fronts. The two international superpowers could come to the conclusion that Turkey is an unpredictable and thus, unreliable partner. "Foreign policy should be based on well-thought-out, solid principles - not impulsive reactions," said Gurcan. The disputed issue of Assad's future may eclipse the mutual interests that connect the three states, like the fight against the so-called "Islamic State" (IS) and other jihadist organizations.
Trump's ambiguous Middle East policy, however, also poses a risk for the US itself. If the country were to follow the example set by Trump's phone call with Erdogan, then it risks ruining its reputation as an international supporter of democracy and human rights in Turkey - and probably elsewhere too. Then, the region's growing tendency to move away from the West would only gain more traction.