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Turkey–U.S. Relations in a Tailspin: To Be Continued

November 15, 2017  RIAC (Russian International Affairs Council)

Dr. Kerim Has

U.S.–Turkey relations are going through one of the most difficult periods in their history. On October 8, 2017 all the U.S. diplomatic missions across Turkey stopped issuing non-immigrant visas to Turkish citizens. Ankara responded in kind by suspending the issue of visas on U.S. territory. Washington’s actions are of course far more damaging, but Turkey refuses to “yield” to their colleagues oversees, demonstrating its determination to stand its ground.

At first glance these measures may seem to be no more than a short-term disagreement between the U.S. and Turkish leaders, with each trying to make the other “blink first.” In the current crisis, personalities add to tensions, because both Erdogan and Trump are strong-willed leaders who hold different views on many foreign policy issues and on the principles of internal state structure.

The current stage of bilateral relations can be safely described as a dead end from which it is very hard to find a way out. In this context, one may recall the 1974 crisis, when Turkey carried out a military operation in Cyprus. At the time, Washington confined itself to imposing an embargo on arms supplies to Turkey. Today, the processes of “bilateral misunderstanding” are far more intensive. Compared with the tensions in U.S.–Russia relations, which involve sanctions against Moscow and a downsizing of diplomatic missions, the confrontation between Washington and Ankara is, if anything, more intense – and is sharpening more rapidly.

It can safely be said that U.S.–Turkey relations have reached an all-time low, and they may get even worse in the near future. Some of the reasons for this rift between recent allies and partners lie on the surface, but there are also structural causes intertwined with the interests of the states and their political elites.

Turkey in Turmoil

In March 2016, Ankara signed a migration agreement with the European Union, which was expected to dispel doubts about Turkey’s accession to the Union. One of the conditions for lifting the visa restrictions mentioned above was Ankara’s change of the 72 points prescribed by the European Union. Turkey complied with all the Western requirements except those that had to do with terrorism. This further aggravated relations between Ankara and the West. By that time, Turkish society had become even more polarized and the policy on the Kurdish issue was toughened.

Internal political tensions were growing gradually, finally culminating in the events of summer 2016, the consequences of which are hard to overestimate.
A week after the abortive coup, Turkey imposed a state of emergency that is extended every three months and is still in force today. Among its main provisions are the fact that, as of July 21, 2016, the country is ruled by decrees issued by the head of state and the Council of Ministers without parliamentary approval, and that the decrees have the force of law.

Not only did the events that took place in summer 2016 bring the domestic political situation to boiling point, but they also fuelled tensions between Ankara and Washington. The situation is complicated significantly by the fact that the Turkish leadership’s main “grievances” towards the United States include, among other things, the continued unhindered presence of Gulen’s supporters in the United States, the refusal of the U.S. authorities to extradite Gulen, the repeated allegations that Washington had a hand in the abortive coup in Turkey and, most of all, the demand that the United States take action on the matter immediately. The United States has adopted a diametrically opposite stance, demanding that Turkey present direct evidence of Gulen’s involvement in the attempted coup. Another source of obvious irritation for Ankara are the public statements made by the U.S. political elite to the effect that the rule of law in the country prevents it from acting as Turkey wants it to, that is, from extraditing Gulen without investigation.

All these developments have gradually distanced Ankara from its Western partners, primarily the United States. The Turkish leader’s image started to change rapidly, as feelings of indignation with regard to specific representatives of the Turkish political elite mounted and the domestic situation in Turkey grew more and more complicated. At the same time, Erdogan consolidated his power, finally making it absolute and unassailable after the April 2017 referendum, which turned Turkey from a parliamentary into a presidential republic.

However, it is also fair to note that the United States and its Western partners are interested in more than Turkey’s violations of human rights and freedom of expression and the press, etc. History shows that the pragmatic Western approach is based on the “us against them” model. Until recently, its leaders used such words as “concerned, worried, puzzled,” etc. However, the rhetoric became much tougher after Turkey arrested German and French media representatives on its territory.

The arrest of the American pastor Andrew Brunson at the protestant church in Izmir, who had been preaching in Turkey for more than 20 years, caused an outcry in the United States. Ankara has accused Brunson of having links with Gulen and believes he was involved in the attempted coup on July 15, 2016. According to a White House report, the issue of the arrested priest was raised at the first personal meeting between Erdogan and Trump in May 2017. Brunson, however, remains in custody.

It should be noted that a protest took place in front of the Turkish Embassy in Washington during the meeting of the two heads of state, which culminated in Erdogan’s bodyguards dispersing the protesters and injuring several people. This was the second such incident in two years. As a result, the United States places 15 of the Turkish leader’s bodyguards on its wanted list.

The last straw was the arrest of Metin Topuz, a Turkish employee at the U.S. Consulate General in Istanbul who had held a key post in U.S.–Turkey structures for 34 years, coordinating interstate interaction of the police, prosecutors and drug control activities.

The absurdity of the situation, as far as Washington is concerned, is that Turkey has made accusations that directly relate to the activities and official duties of Metin Topuz, which he had performed for more than 30 years working at the U.S. Consulate General. Ankara insists that Metin Topuz was directly implicated in the 2013 corruption scandal and that he cooperated with the Turkish police officers, prosecutors and law court officials who were later accused of links with Gulen. Ankara holds Gulen responsible not only for the failed coup attempt in 2016, but also for the events of December 17–26, 2013, which plunged Turkey in turmoil, as well as for the protests at Gezi Park.

The situation surrounding Metin Topuz is not the only case involving an employee of the U.S. diplomatic missions in Turkey. Earlier, in March 2017, an interpreter at the U.S. Consulate in Adana was detained and subsequently arrested on charges of terrorism. The Turkish prosecutor’s office agreed to the interrogation of another consulate staff member in Istanbul, but after the U.S. suspended the issuance of visas to Turkish citizens, no further actions were taken against the employee.

Reza Zarrab: Temporarily Unavailable

One of the key figures causing trouble in bilateral relations is an Iranian-born Turkish citizen whom Washington accuses of organizing financial schemes that helped Iran dodge some of the sanctions imposed by the United States.

Although the investigation into the 2013 corruption scandal is officially closed, the United States has named Reza Zarrab as one of the main suspects in the case. What is more, after the key suspect was arrested in March 2016 in the United States, the list of people that Washington suspects of money laundering and corruption has been growing. According to the American media, this list includes some high-ranking members of the Turkish political establishment. Thus, for example, the United States recently put the former Minister of Finance of Turkey, who was forced to resign after the events of 2013, on its wanted list. Furthermore, the United States arrested Deputy President of the Turkish state-owned Halkbank Hakan Atilla in March 2017 as part of the same case. The head of the bank is wanted.

An “aggravating” factor that is certainly a serious irritant for the Turkish leadership is the fact that Ankara’s demands for the extradition of the detained persons (Reza Zarrab first and foremost) are ignored by the U.S. authorities. The first hearing of the Reza Zarrab case of will open in late November 2017, which only serves to increase tensions. Thus, the Turkish leadership is facing the internationalization of its domestic political developments. Moreover, the legal proceedings initiated by the United States have target the banking sector, a sensitive sphere for any country.

In this context, it is worth mentioning one of the more important document passed in August 2017 within the framework of the current state of emergency regime, namely, Resolution 694, which allows the country to exchange foreign citizens detained in Turkey for Turkish citizens detained abroad.

Because the resolution was only passed in August 2017, we can assume that Ankara may be intending at some point in the future to “play the card” of those citizens who interest the Turkish leadership and who are currently under arrest in the United States in order to bring them back to Turkey. Ankara is probably also counting on the fact that, in exchange for U.S. citizens detained in Turkey, it will get the people whom it believes were involved in the failed coup attempt. This is confirmed to a large extent by the statements of the President of the Republic of Turkey addressed to the U.S. authorities. However, under the current circumstances, Washington is highly unlikely to agree to such an exchange.

Regional Context: The Same Old Story

The events in the Middle East, notably in Syria, are a powerful catalyst of the crisis in bilateral relations. Several important observations can thus be made.

First, the attitude towards the President of Syria, Bashar Assad, and the opposition militant groups. The United States, and the West as a whole, have for some time now been less concerned than before with the issue of whether or not Bashar Assad should go. Meanwhile, Ankara has alternately warmed to and then cooled off with regard to the position of its Western partners. Russia and Iran cannot afford to be as categorical as before in declaring Bashar Assad unacceptable, although at the end of the day, the President of Syria is like a “red rag” for the Turkish leadership. After the agreement between Moscow and Washington on the withdrawal of chemical weapons from Syria in 2013, the United States effectively changed its attitude to Bashar Assad. Ankara preserved its tough rhetoric at the official level.

Differences between Ankara and Washington may further intensify, bringing the conflict to a new level.

A similar situation could be observed with respect to the Syrian opposition groups. Let us not forget that Washington cut its military aid to them after 2014, and in July 2017, the Trump Administration made the final decision, ordering the CIA to stop all military assistance to these groups. In contrast, Ankara, far from reducing its aid, used these groups as “allies” in its Operation Euphrates Shield.

Second, Turkey and the United States differed in their assessments of the threat posed by Islamic State, the Al-Nusra Front and other terrorist groups. On the other hand, this was closely intertwined with the vision of the Kurdish issue in the region, which has long been a “sore spot” on the map of the Middle East.

In this regard, the summer of 2014 marked a turning point. It is worth recalling here that it was at this time that Islamic State came into prominence by invading Syria and Iraq, occupying such key cities as Raqqa and Mosul, among others. The Western coalition, which decided to launch air raids against the terrorists, needed a regional air base. Turkey, an ally of NATO, has such a base. However, Ankara did not allow NATO forces to be deployed at Incirlik Air Base until July 2015, which puzzled the United States and its allies.

What is more, the events of 2014, when Islamic State intensified its advance and surrounded the (mainly Kurd-populated) city of Kobani in Northern Syria, were another source of irritation for Washington. It was some time before the Turkish authorities decided to help the Kurds, which also dealt a blow at the country’s image in the eyes of the international community. As a result, Washington strengthened its cooperation with the Kurds in fighting Islamic State. In addition, it is clear that the White House has rule out sending its soldiers to Syria as “feet on the ground” to fight Islamic State. Nor is it prepared to cooperate with Assad’s troops or pro-Iranian groups.

Thus, the tactical partnership between the United States and the Kurdish armed groups turned into a strategic one, which ran counter to Ankara’s regional and domestic political interests.

It is no secret that the forces that Washington cooperates with in Syria have close links with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is recognized as a terrorist organization both by Turkey and the United States. It is noteworthy that when Raqqa was captured recently, the Kurdish units unfurled PKK flags and carried portraits of its permanent leader, Abdullah Ocalan, who has been in a Turkish prison since 1999.

Although Russia and Turkey are moving out of the prolonged crisis, they still have a long way to go before the pre-crisis partnership is restored.

It is well known that the U.S.-backed Kurdish forces today control 20–25 per cent of Syrian territory, and practically 80 per cent of the country’s hydrocarbon resources. Moreover, the Kurdish units receive substantial amounts of military equipment from Washington.

Thus, Ankara’s fears concerning further actions of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and the armed units it controls are not ungrounded, considering that the PKK is largely armed by Washington. It has to be noted that, in the wake of the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, the question of Turkey’s territorial integrity prompts Ankara to take tougher measures on the Kurdish issue in its relations with the United States.

One instance of Ankara’s policy is a report published by the state-controlled news agency Anadolu Agency in July 2017, which provides detailed information about the locations of ten U.S. bases and military facilities in Syria deployed in territories controlled by Kurdish military groups. The reaction of the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) was swift and harsh, while Ankara once more reminded its transatlantic partners that cooperation between Washington and the Kurdish forces is a strong irritant.

Ankara’s fears about Washington’s rather close relations with the Kurdish armed groups is shared by the Turkish people, which thus undermined the image of the United States in Turkey. Thus, according to the respected U.S. think tank, the Pew Research Center, Turkey was the only country that considered the United States to be its number 1 threat in 2017 (72 per cent of respondents). The Turkish people feel that Washington poses a far greater danger than the problem of migration from Iraq and Syria. It is worth noting that the Russian people also see the United States as a threat, although the number of respondents who are of this opinion is significantly lower (37 per cent).

It is against this background of overall political tensions that the question of the future of Syria after Islamic State loses its occupied territories remains. There is no doubt that the problem of political settlement will come to the fore, ushering in another stage of the crisis. The Kurdish units that are rapidly consolidating their positions and which control the greater part of the country’s energy resources will still be on the agenda. The issues of Bashar Assad, Russia’s presence in Syria and the significant influence and involvement of the United States will obviously remain. In this context, the differences between Ankara and Washington may further intensify, bringing the conflict to a new level.

Third, U.S.–Turkey tensions are also fuelled by the Iran factor and its influence on the process of attaining a peaceful settlement of the Syrian crisis.

For a long time, Ankara and Teheran were in different camps; however, there have recently been signs of a rapprochement, which adds to the United States’ concerns about Turkey’s policies. Thus, Washington has expressed its concern about the following factors: cooperation between Ankara and Teheran in the Astana Process; interaction over the Qatar crisis; and finally the consensus between the two states on the issue of the referendum held in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The recent dramatic increase of military cooperation between Turkey and Iran merits attention. For example, in August 2017 (for the first time since the 1979 revolution), the Chief of Staff for the Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran and nine high-ranking military personnel paid a three-day visit to Ankara, followed by a visit of the Chief of General Staff of the Republic of Turkey to Teheran (the first in 38 years). It is also noteworthy that, after visiting Iran (a trip that was timed for the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan), President Erdogan received the President of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, in Ankara.

Clearly, considering the anti-Iranian rhetoric in the United States and the overall political situation in the world, Washington’s reaction to the actions of its NATO partner was highly negative.

Ankara–Moscow: A Marriage of Convenience

The gradual restoration of Russia–Turkey relations after the crisis of November 24, 2015 has also left an imprint on the relations between Ankara and Washington.

Although Russia and Turkey are moving out of the prolonged crisis, they still have a long way to go before the pre-crisis partnership is restored. The fuss over the issue of the supply of Turkish tomatoes and Russian wheat illustrates the state of bilateral cooperation.

Even so, considering the recent developments at the inter-state level and the comments made by Vladimir Putin and the people around him about Erdogan and members of his family, we have to admit that Moscow fully intends to mend fences with Turkey. Obviously, Russia is pursuing some strategically important goals, not only in the Middle East, but also in its relations with NATO. It is worth recalling that, after the downing of the Russian SU-24 plane, the Kremlin submitted a report to the UN Security Council which, in Russia’s opinion, contained information about Turkey’s links with international terrorist groups. However, the report has yet to be discussed by the UN Security Council.

As part of its geopolitical manoeuvring, Moscow, which has no option but to mend its relations with Turkey, is actively cooperating with the country in the military-political field, including on the issue of settling the Syrian crisis, as well as on the establishment of a de-escalation zone in Idlib. Ankara would not have been able to carry out Operation Euphrates Shield without Moscow’s approval and support.

Washington’s dissatisfaction is partly caused by the fact that Turkey and Russia are the main actors in the political settlement in Syria, as witnessed by the seven Astana summits. The fact that Ankara is turning towards Moscow and away from its Western partners both on the ground and at the diplomatic level must surely be a source of irritation for Washington.

Talks on the supply of Russian S-400 missiles to Turkey is never off the front pages of newspapers around the world. It is, without a doubt, an odd situation: Moscow intends to provide a NATO member state with the latest anti-missile equipment. So, it is not only or largely about the economic aspects of the S-400 deal, but rather about its geopolitical consequences – both for Ankara and for Moscow. What Russia stands to gain in this context is obvious. For Turkey, it is a chance to send a clear signal to the West, especially the United States, that Ankara has an alternative.

However, the acquisition of S-400s would raise the more fundamental question of who Turkey would regard as an ally and who it would see as an adversary. Let us not forget that the former Ministry of National Defence of Turkey Fikri Isik said in March 2017 that the S-400 is incompatible with NATO’s weapons. The “friend or foe” identification radar systems would not be interoperable with the NATO systems that Turkey has at present.

Moreover, according to Russian reports, Moscow will not allow Ankara to get inside the S-400s, for which purpose it will make provisions to protect their “entrails.” We should also keep in mind the fact that Russia’s closest partners – Iran, Syria and Armenia – have S-300s, and it is hard to imagine that Moscow would offer a NATO member country a more modern air defence system without any conditions. Most probably, Turkey would not use S-400s against the countries with which Russia has strategic relationships, i.e., the southern and eastern directions would be ruled out. This means only one thing: Turkey feels threatened by the West.

In this context, it should be noted that Turkey’s political elite may be expecting more trouble on its borders – primarily in connection with the Kurdish issue – which could wreak havoc in the region. If the conflict spreads, actors from outside the region (namely, Russia and the United States) may become involved. Given such a scenario and the current situation, Turkey can reasonably assume that it may find itself opposing the West in a conflict. This makes the suggestions that S-400s may be deployed in the country’s two biggest cities, Istanbul and Ankara, all the more plausible.

Clearly, the issue of the S-400s does not augur well for U.S.–Turkey relations. One way Washington can impede cooperation between Ankara and Moscow is to impose a new package of sanctions against Russia and third countries. Such sanctions may target the military-industrial complex, including the Almaz-Antey military space concern and Rosoboronexport, which develop and sell such systems as the S-400.

We should also remember that the cooling of Turkey’s relations with the West has led to a virtual embargo on the supply of some types of weapons, especially from the United States and Germany. This involves mainly American F-35 fighter planes and German Leopard tanks. The expert community in the United States has been seriously discussing the issue of Turkey’s membership in NATO, as well as cancelling the use of Incirlik Air Base and the subsequent removal of the nuclear weapons stockpiled in Turkey. The U.S. establishment actively supports the idea.

In a recent open letter to President Trump, 14 U.S. senators, including the hard core Republican John McCain and Democrat Robert Menendez, welcome visa restrictions for Turkey and propose bringing it home to Erdogan that U.S.–Turkey relations have reached boiling point.

Post Scriptum

There is a high probability that U.S.–Turkey relations are heading for more upheavals in the short and medium term, making the topic ever more relevant. I believe the following points need to be stressed:

First, the problems between Ankara and Washington, which involve a number of key personalities in Turkey and the United States, may worsen the crisis by making it about “personalities.” This, naturally, would harm Turkey above all.

Second, mounting internal political tensions in Turkey and the polarization of society, not to mention the controversial characters of the leaders of the two countries, may lead to surprise moves from both Ankara and Washington.

Third, finding common ground regionally is likely to be further complicated by the fact that the Kurdish issue has taken a negative turn as far as Ankara is concerned. This, on top of the fact that Kurdish militants, whom the United States has supplied with large amounts of modern weapons, now control Syria’s energy resources.

Fourth, forced rapprochement between Turkey and Russia in Syria raises the question as to whether the deterioration of U.S.–Turkey relations may turn Ankara and Moscow into allies and partners. In the longer term Turkey, the United States and Russia may face an even bigger problem over the Kurdish issue, which may spill outside the traditional regional framework. For Turkey, Russia’s position on this vital issue is unclear: the Turkish leadership is pressing for Operation Afrin, while Moscow has invited some Kurdish representatives blacklisted by Ankara to take part in the Congress of the Peoples of Syria recently initiated by the Kremlin. Besides, Moscow, for understandable reasons, is committed to the long-term planning of its geopolitical interests, which include, among other things, regional energy projects.

Finally, problems in U.S.–Turkey relations will have repercussions, not only for Turkey’s role within NATO, but also for its membership in the North Atlantic alliance. Naturally, if events take such a turn, the first thing to be sorted out will be the legal and actual status of Incirlik Air Base. This may open a new window for Russia, not to Europe, as before, but to the Greater Middle East.