Dimitar Bechev
May 18 2018

Turkey Should be Missing Obama By Now

Just when you think U.S.-Turkish relations cannot get any worse, they plunge to even deeper lows.  

Last week, President Donald Trump decided to pull the plug on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), popularly known as the Iran nuclear deal.  In a telephone call to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said the U.S. move was “wrong”. 

But that response was measured compared to what the Turkish leader had to say in reaction to the killing of more than 60 Palestinians by the Israeli Defence Force at the border with Gaza on the day the U.S. unveiled its new embassy in Jerusalem. 

Speaking at Chatham House in London, Erdoğan blamed the United States for returning the world to what he called the dark days leading up to World War Two. In the meantime, Turkey withdrew its ambassadors from both the United States and Israel.

Erdoğan is unlikely to soften his rhetoric. As the June 24 presidential and parliamentary elections come closer, there is already a race with the opposition as to who will best capture Turkish public outrage at Israel and the United States. The leftist main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) called for the international isolation of Israel “if it continues its policy of massacres”. A timely reminder that the dichotomy between the nationalist Erdoğan and the pro-Western secular Turks does not really hold.

Yet tensions with the United States are not going to go away after the June elections either.  The White House has to decide on the shape of the secondary sanctions against Iran. In other words, what penalties companies doing business in the Islamic Republic should face. Though Turkey has not really cashed in on the lifting of sanctions since 2015, the business community on both sides of the border have foreseen an uptick in trade and investment hitting $30 billion in turnover from a 2012 peak of $22 billion. The U.S. policy might deter Turkish business and investors.

Much, of course, depends on how the United States chooses to treat European companies trading with Iran – the likes of Shell, Airbus, Mercedes, and Total (which halted a $2-billion gas project because of the new U.S. sanctions). But it is very likely that the issue of Iran will make the chasm between Ankara and Washington even wider.

A spat over Iran would fan further the flames between the United States and Turkey, which have risen sky-high of late. Turkish state-owned Halkbank could face billions of dollars of fine for its part in laundering funds from the oil-for-gold, Iran sanctions busting scheme.  Halkbank’s former deputy general manager, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, found guilty of aiding the scheme in March, has now been sentenced to 32 months in prison by a court in New York City. 

The Turkish government dismisses the trial as part of a conspiracy against it and last week, a Turkish court denied the request of U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson to be released from detention pending trial on terrorism charges.  The Brunson case has animated the U.S. Senate with legislators from both sides of the aisle trying to put pressure on Erdoğan personally.

To be sure, it is not all doom and gloom between Ankara and Washington. For instance, the friction in northern Syria is receding. After the two countries’ top diplomats met in Brussels at the end of April, Turkey turned its sights away from the Syrian district of Manbij, where U.S. troops are training Syrian Kurdish forces, towards Idlib province.

U.S. forces and their allies have launched a new offensive against ISIS pockets east of the Euphrates and along the border with Iraq. The United States and Turkey are not on the brink of a military showdown in Syria (if they ever were). And do not forget, Western strikes against Syrian government targets were welcomed by the Turkish leadership (as are, most probably, the Israeli strikes against Iranian assets in Syria). But this does not amount to a coherent strategy of containing Iran.

One of the multiple problems related to the JCPOA reversal, from Turkey’s perspective, is that, rhetoric aside, it will not lead to a serious push against Tehran and its allies in the Middle East.

When Trump won the presidency in November 2016, many supporters of Turkey’s governing party were jubilant on social networks and called for a “new era” in U.S.-Turkey relations. Erdoğan voiced some cautious optimism, too. By now they might wish Barack Obama were still in charge. After all, it was the previous administration that delivered the Iran nuclear deal and worked assiduously to mend fences between Turkey and Israel. As a result Ankara obtained some real concessions. In 2013, under U.S. pressure, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu apologised to Erdoğan for the Gaza flotilla incident of May 2010. The Israelis paid $20 million in compensation to the families of those Turks killed onboard the Mavi Marmara. As a candidate, Obama promised to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem yet failed to deliver on his words after he entered the White House.

What Turkey faces now is the worst of both worlds. A U.S. administration that sticks to Obama-era policies that Turkey dislikes, such as the alliance with the Syrian Kurds, while scuppering other policies that Turkey actually favours, for example the JCPOA.  Nearly all that Erdoğan got from Trump was a congratulatory phone call after the Turkish president won a constitutional referendum in April last year. Things can always get worse than what one would expect.