Edward G. Stafford
Mar 16 2018

Impact of Tillerson’s ouster on Turkish-U.S. relations

Hard on the heels of the March 8-9 technical level meeting of a joint U.S.-Turkish working group, President Donald Trump dismissed Rex Tillerson as secretary of state and nominated CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace him.

What impact will this change have on the efforts of Turkey and the United States to improve their strained relations? Will Pompeo make radical changes to the working group, more importantly, do the references to allies in Tillerson’s departure remarks indicate his concern that Trump and his replacement attach little importance to long-term alliances and partnerships?

In sum, what can we expect from Pompeo vis-à-vis Turkey’s relations with the United States?

The working group will likely continue. Though the change in State Department leadership has been abrupt, and executed in a maladroit manner, the recently constituted working group of mid-level diplomats is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. More senior-level meetings to ratify the work of their subordinates may be postponed to accommodate the personnel changes, but that does not preclude the working level meetings continuing. Terminating the consultations would not be in the interests of either party. That said, formal agreements on substantive issues would require accord between senior officials.

The United States must quickly identify to the Turkish delegation who on the U.S. side can speak authoritatively while Pompeo goes through a confirmation process that will take several weeks or longer. In the meantime, both sides should continue to pursue enhanced dialogue and to avoid inflammatory public rhetoric to ease the tensions between them.

Tillerson valued allies; do Pompeo and Trump?

In Tillerson’s departure remarks, he spoke several times of the U.S. need for allies.

This emphasis on fostering and sustaining old alliances, and creating new ones, as a necessary component of U.S. policy likely galled many in the Trump administration who have a “go it alone” attitude.

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Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson

Tillerson, an organisation man who worked his way up through the ranks of Exxon to become its CEO, understood the importance of building consensus and relying on cooperating partners to achieve the mission of the organisation. As inept as he may have been in executing his strategic plan (something to be debated elsewhere), his farewell remarks, as well as his engagements with other foreign ministers over the last year, indicate his belief that the United States needs allies, such as Turkey in NATO, and partners, like Saudi Arabia or Japan, to be secure and prosperous.

Trump has not shown much concern for the sensitivities of allies; Pompeo is considered to be like-minded.

Pompeo and Turkey.

Not long after Trump’s inauguration, new CIA Director Pompeo visited Turkey, reportedly to meet his counterparts, discuss the ongoing battle against Islamic State (ISIS), and the war in Syria. The details of those conversations are not public, but based on the continued U.S. engagement with Syrian Kurdish YPG forces as an ally in the fight against ISIS in the face of strong Turkish opposition, one must assume the discussions were frank and less than warm and friendly.

Pompeo will continue to put U.S. interests first and may show less concern than Tillerson for the interest of its long-standing ally, Turkey.

He certainly recognises Turkey’s inherent geostrategic value, but that does not mean he places great value on cordial relations, that is, he may be less concerned with Turkish sensitivities and more insistent that Turkey be supportive of U.S. initiatives.

We know that he enjoys the President’s confidence, ensuring that when he speaks, his interlocutor can safely assume it is aligned with Trump’s thinking.

Pompeo holds strong antipathy for the pan-Islamic Muslim Brotherhood.

When in Congress, he sought to designate the Brotherhood as a foreign terrorist organisation. Ironically, the CIA reportedly advised against such action, citing the damage it could do to U.S. relations with allies.

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Mike Pompeo, the new secretary of state

Clearly, Pompeo’s attitude is closer to that of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who deposed his Muslim Brotherhood predecessor Mohammed Morsi in 2013, than to that of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was one of Morsi’s biggest backers.

Any hint that the government of Turkey is supporting Muslim Brotherhood, or any of its affiliates or offshoots, would not be well received by the secretary of state nominee.

Likewise, any hint that Turkey was allying with Syria-based Islamists in its operations against the YPG would not be appreciated.

On the other hand, Pompeo may be more likely to countenance operations against the YPG, assessing that the United States has more need of access to Turkish military facilities as a counterweight to Iranian power and influence than it has of Kurdish ground forces for operations against a largely defeated ISIS. The “go it alone” attitude could, counter-intuitively, drive Pompeo to acquiesce to the Turkish view that the YPG equals the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a group fighting in Turkey that the United States designates as terrorist organisation.

Related to his disdain for Islamist groups, Pompeo has been accused by some of being an Islamophobe, in large part due to his connections to alleged anti-Muslim bigot Frank Gaffney.

Pompeo would certainly deny he is bigoted against Muslims, but bear in mind that he is a devout Evangelical Christian who at one time taught Sunday school to young members of his local church, which is affiliated with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.

In an ironic twist, Pastor Andrew Brunson, jailed in Turkey since 2016 and facing possible charges of involvement in that year’s failed coup, is also a member of the same church.

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Pastor Andrew Brunson, a member of the same church as Pompeo

How much Pompeo’s religious beliefs will influence his work as secretary of state remains to be seen, but to ignore the fact that he is a devout evangelical Christian would be as serious an error for Turkish analysts as it would be for U.S. analysts to ignore the fact that Erdoğan is a devout Sunni Muslim.

Gülen will not be extradited, any time soon.

Though Turkey has appealed for the extradition of Fethullah Gülen, a legal permanent resident of the United State, it has thus far failed to provide evidence sufficient to convince the U.S. Departments of Justice and State to send the Islamist preacher to Turkey to answer charges of organising and ordering the July 2016 failed coup. The change of the secretary of state will have little or no impact in the near term on the extradition request, which is bound by legal requirements.

Also, it would certainly be challenged in the courts if the United States suddenly reversed itself on the sufficiency of the evidence presented. Although one might wish to assume that a former CIA director would be open to some informal (and possibly illegal) arrangement to return Gülen to Turkey as short-lived National Security Advisor Mike Flynn reportedly was considering, the rendition program of the Bush administration was directed against persons believed to have acted against the United States, not so much against those who had acted against other countries.

Friction over Iran could intensify.

Pompeo will support Trump in expecting more from U.S. allies regarding Iran. Pompeo opposed the nuclear deal, known as the JCPOA, between the P5+1 group of world powers and Iran.

Trump has made it clear that one of his reasons for firing Tillerson was their disagreement on continuing the JCPOA. Pompeo will not be a brake on Trump’s desire to undo the JCPOA. Pompeo will have the job of getting key allies to agree, and to cooperate with the United States on containing Iran. Given the U.S. conviction of a Turkish banker and indictment of Turkish officials for busting sanctions on Iran and Pompeo’s known opposition to the JCPOA, Turkey can expect to feel strong pressure from Washington regarding actions to contain Iran.

How Turkey responds will do much to strengthen or weaken ties between these two NATO allies.

Finally, some Republican members of the Senate have expressed concerns about Pompeo as secretary of state, citing perceptions of an anti-Muslim bias that could hinder good relations with many allies and partners, so Pompeo’s confirmation is not certain. That said, this writer believes the Senate will ultimately give Trump the like-minded secretary of state he desires, saving its ire, and non-confirmation vote, for the nominee to be CIA director who reportedly oversaw secret prisons and the use of waterboarding on suspected terrorists.