Officially speaking, Turkey and the US are NATO allies and
strategic partners. These days their relationship looks like anything but an
alliance or a partnership. This has not happened overnight.
In 1964, US President Lyndon Johnson cautioned Turkey against rash
military moves it might be planning in Cyprus. The famous “Johnson letter”
prompted Turkish PM Ismet Inönü to convene his cabinet in emergency session.
That was the first serious crack between America and its southeast European
ally, a country that guarded one of the West’s Soviet frontiers. The Johnson
letter was also the first incident to spark (largely left-wing) anti-Americanism
President Johnson’s warning may have played a role in keeping the
Turkish military at its barracks while inter-communal strife on Cyprus worsened
in the late 1960s. But in 1974, the Turkish army invaded the northern third of
the island in response to a short-lived coup aimed at annexing Cyprus to Greece.
In 1975, a Congressional arms embargo on Turkey was instituted – despite
objections from the Ford administration – after Ankara refused to relinquish
any of the territory it had seized the year before.
Forty-three years later, Congress took a step towards banning the
delivery of the F-35 stealth fighter jet to Turkey after the House and Senate
agreed on compromised text for a defense spending bill. The two chambers agreed
to prohibit delivery of any F-35s to Turkey until the Pentagon submits a plan
that assesses the impact of expelling Turkey from the Joint Strike Fighter
program in which it is a partner (the assessment should come within 90 days of
the text becoming law).
Today is not 1964 or 1975. First of all, Turkish public sentiment
in the 1960s and 1970s was largely pro-American (and anti-Soviet) and
anti-Americanism was “a thing of the ultra-left.” In 2017, however,
according to the Pew Research Center, 79% of Turks polled said they had an
unfavorable opinion of the US, compared to the global median of 39%.
Anti-Americanism in Turkey was stronger than in Venezuela, Lebanon, Tunisia,
Indonesia, and even Russia.
Secondly, the previous Turkish-American crises were largely
single-case issues whereas the current one is multi-dimensional, and therefore
more difficult to resolve.
The issues plaguing the relationship now include the following:
The Turks have
accused the Trump administration – as they did the Obama administration before
it – of arming and supporting “Kurdish terrorists” in northern Syria.
Turkey’s “terrorists” are the US military’s primary ground force in the
global fight against Islamic State. Ankara and Washington compromised on a
formula earlier this year about the Syrian Kurds and the administration of the
key Syrian town of Manbij, but that deal looks fragile over the longer term.
the US administration for harboring Fethullah Gülen, an exiled cleric and the
alleged mastermind behind the failed coup of July 2016.
ignoring western and NATO warnings, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appears
determined to deploy the Russian-made S-400 air and anti-missile defense system
on Turkish soil. Turkey will thus become the first NATO country to have deployed
the S-400 system. As Washington continues to reiterate, the S-400s would expose
NATO assets, in particular the F-35, to the risk of Russian surveillance. Ankara
is privately discussing further Russian arms acquisitions.
Turkish lender, Türkiye Halk Bankası AŞ (Halkbank), is under criminal
investigation in New York’s southern district on charges of helping Iran evade
sanctions. The bank’s deputy general manager, Hakan Atilla, was jailed by a US
court in May on these charges. Observers see Halkbank as a likely target of
penalties as a result of the investigation.
President Trump announced that the US is pulling out of an international accord
over Iran’s nuclear program and would reimpose sanctions on Tehran. His
administration also threatened other countries with sanctions if they do not
halt oil imports from Iran [despite a 20% decrease, Iran remained Turkey’s
biggest crude oil supplier in the first quarter of 2018]. On July 24, Turkish
Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said Turkey will not implement the
US sanctions on Iran. Earlier, Ankara had conveyed the same message to a
visiting US Treasury delegation. And on July 25, Erdoğan called Iran “a
neighbor and a strategic partner.”
At the center
of the US-Turkish diplomatic crisis is Pastor Andrew Brunson, a US citizen who
had been living in Izmir, Turkey, for the past 23 years. Erdoğan’s
government arrested Brunson in 2016 and indicted him last year on charges of
espionage and attempting to overthrow the state. Brunson’s activities were
linked by Turkish law enforcement authorities to both Gülen and Kurdish
militants, an unusual dual mission. After a year and a half in jail Brunson was
released to house arrest, but for Washington it was too little, too late. Pastor
Brunson is the most visible example of what some call Turkey’s “hostage
diplomacy.” Turkey has detained 20 American citizens including Brunson and
three employees of American consulates in Turkey.
Diplomatic sniping has accelerated between the two countries.
President Trump threatened “large sanctions” on Turkey, to which Turkish FM
Çavuşoğlu replied, “We will never tolerate threats from anyone.”
The US sanctioned the Turkish interior and justice ministers by freezing their
US bank accounts, something of an empty gesture as these accounts do not exist.
On August 4, Erdoğan ordered reciprocal sanctions against the US interior
and justice secretaries, escalating the diplomatic row. (The Americans did not
have bank accounts in Turkey either.)
Erdoğan, who just emerged victorious from a crucial
presidential election on June 24, keeps playing to generally xenophobic and
specifically anti-American Turkish sentiment. “Those who think that they can
make Turkey take a step back with ridiculous sanctions have never known this
country or this nation,” he said. “We have never bowed our heads to such
pressure and will never do so.”
Erdoğan, usually a master of confrontational politics, has so
far carefully avoided a personal duel of words with Trump. He is trying instead
to foment imagined divisions within the US administration. In a speech, Erdoğan
said Trump is being “deceived” and cast the US sanctions as an imperial
plot. He used familiar rhetoric to make this point: “This is the manifestation
of only an evangelist and Zionist approach.”
So far the only winner from the US-Turkish wrangle has been Moscow
(and, to a lesser degree, Beijing). The row will not lead to war between
NATO’s two biggest armies, but it will push Turkey further into the
non-Western orbit. What to do?
There are ideological and geostrategic limits to Turkey’s
appetite to go more non-NATO. Turkey is simply not welcome in the Eurasian bloc
as an ally except for its occasional value as a tool to divide the Western
alliance to which it theoretically belongs. The Western impulse to go soft on
Turkey in order to stop it from pushing further into Eurasia is ill-advised.
The US administration should not repeat the mistakes the Western
bloc has made about Erdoğan since he came to power in 2002. Going soft on
Turkey has not anchored Turkey to the West. On the contrary: it has encouraged
Erdoğan to abuse Turkey’s “nuisance value” and turned Ankara into a
part-time partner with a strong taste for blackmail.