President Obama is set to hold talks with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of the G20 summit in China on Sunday, and there is a wealth of evidence that it will not be a comfortable meeting.
The sources of discord are many. Turkey—a U.S. and NATO ally—is currently engaged in a standoff with Kurdish-majority militias in northern Syria that are also backed by the U.S. Erdogan is also irritated with the U.S. for not immediately handing over Fethullah Gulen, the Pennsylvania-based religious leader who stands accused of backing the failed military coup that rocked Turkey on July 15.
The stakes of a worsening American-Turkish faceoff are soaring. Further disagreement risks escalating the conflict in Syria, deepening Turkey’s own internal crisis and hampering the fight against ISIS. “I think that Obama will have a hard time, a rough time with Erdogan. Both issues are explosive and I am not sure that Obama is in better position to treat these two questions,” says Bayram Balci, a researcher at Sciences Po in Paris, referring to the duel crises over Gulen’s extradition and U.S.-support for Kurdish fighters in Syria.
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The two leaders face a sweeping and delicate set of military and geopolitical questions with few obvious answers. On Aug. 20, a suicide bomber killed more than 50 people at a wedding party in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep. Turkey blamed the attack on ISIS, which is believed to have carried out a series of lethal attacks inside Turkey, including the devastating gun and bomb assault on Istanbul’s main airport in June. In an apparent response to the Gaziantep bombing, Turkey sent tanks and warplanes to back a force of Syrian rebel fighters to retake the town of Jarabulus from ISIS, marking Turkey’s most direct intervention in Syria to date.
The incursion also placed Turkish forces in close proximity to a rival group, the U.S-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which are led by a Kurdish-majority militia called the People’s Protection Units (known by the acronym YPG). With the help of U.S. airstrikes, the YPG and its allies had retaken the key town of Manbij from ISIS earlier in August, prompting scenes of celebration as residents celebrating the end of jihadi rule by trimming their beards and smoking cigarettes—both forbidden by ISIS.
But the cross-border operation also appeared aimed at deterring the Kurdish forces of the YPG. Turkey regards the YPG as an offshoot of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a militant Kurdish separatist group that is branded a terrorist organization by both Turkey and the U.S. The U.S. takes a different view, treating the PKK and YPG as separate organizations, and adopting the YPG as a reliable and important ally in the broader coalition against ISIS.
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The U.S. embrace of the Kurdish militias infuriates the Turkish government, which considers the YPG-dominated enclave in Syria as a base for the Kurdish separatist campaign inside Turkey, a conflict that has claimed thousands of lives over the course of three decades. A ceasefire between the Turkish military and the PKK collapsed in the summer of 2015, plunging much of southeastern Turkey into conflict and displacing some 350,000 people.
Obama and his administration now face the task of defusing the standoff between its two allies in northern Syria. Turkey wants the YPG to leave Manbij and withdraw east of the Euphrates River. The U.S. military claimed on August 24 that the militias had done just that. Air Force Col. John L. Dorrian, the spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS then clarified in a tweet that “some forces remain to finish clearing, IED removal as planned.”
Erdogan is not convinced. “At the moment, they are saying the YPG has crossed,” Erdoğan said on Friday, according to Reuters. “We are saying no they didn’t. The proof depends on our own observation.”
The White House announced the upcoming meeting with Erdogan earlier this week in an apparent attempt to defuse tensions with Turkey. In the meeting, Obama is expected to try to persuade Erdogan that Turkish forces should focus on the shared goal of fighting ISIS, rather that pursuing a potentially costly campaign against American-allied Kurdish militias.
“This doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing,” says Aaron Stein, an analyst on Turkey with the Atlantic Council in Washington, “The intersection of American-trained rebels on one side and the YPG-SDF on the other, regardless of how it happened, regardless of the nuts and bolts and the sequencing of events, the battle plan was for these to guys to meet up some place.”
Obama’s task might be easier if the summit were not taking place during a nadir in Turkish-U.S. relations. The two allies have long-running disagreements over how to handle the war in Syria and the fight against ISIS. American observers also have concerns about Turkish measures taken after the coup that they see as compromising democratic rights and freedom of expression. In the wake of the failed July coup attempt, Erdogan’s government tightened restrictions on media and educational institutions as a part of a broader security crackdown. Obama did not meet Erdogan when the Turkish leader visited Washington in March in a move widely interpreted as a high profile snub. “We’re definitely at a low point. It’s a multitude of factors,” says the Atlantic Council’s Stein.
The abortive military coup in July supercharged an existing streak of anti-American sentiment in Turkey. Turkish officials felt that the U.S. government was slow to take a strong stand in support of the elected government. On the night of the coup attempt, U.S. secretary of state John Kerry initially called for “stability and peace and continuity within Turkey,” a statement that sounded vague in Turkey, where tanks rolled into the streets and warplanes bombed the capital. The U.S. later stood against the coup, but for many in the Turkish government, public, and media, the damage had already been done.
Erdogan is demanding the extradition of the man he blames for the coup: Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish Islamic movement leader who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. The Turkish government claims Gulen’s followers established a network of operatives within the state, including the military, which sprang into action on the night of the coup. While some observers and U.S. officials privately express doubts that Gulen was responsible for the coup, the Obama administration insists it is cooperating with Turkey, running the extradition request through a set of required legal procedures. Visiting Ankara last week, Vice President Joe Biden said, “We have no, no, no, no interest whatsoever in protecting anyone who has done harm to an ally. None.”
The attempted coup killed more than 240 people and traumatized much of the public in Turkey, where the military has prompted the removal of four governments since 1960. After surviving the attempted insurrection, Erdogan enjoyed an outpouring of political support, even from those who previously opposed his government. As a result, Erdogan enters his meeting with Obama with a broad domestic coalition behind him.
“In Turkey 80% of public opinion thinks that Gulen is behind the coup. Whether this is true or not the most important thing is that this belief reinforces Erdogan in his policy with the U.S.,” says Balci, of Sciences Po. “He has the support of the Turkish population—AKP base or not—almost all Turks think that the US has a responsibility in the coup via Gulen.”