Presidents likely to maintain holding pattern in U.S.-Turkey ties

President Donald Trump is expected to discuss a range of pressing bilateral issues, including Russian missile defences, a Syria safe zone and possible fines for breaking sanctions on Iran, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York this week, but a major breakthrough appears unlikely. 

Also likely to come up is hydrocarbon exploration in the waters around Cyprus and Turkey’s request for the extradition of Fethullah Gülen, the U.S.-based preacher it blames for the 2016 coup attempt, as well as the ongoing travel ban on Turkish-American scientist Serkan Gölge and the incarceration Turkish employees of the U.S. diplomatic mission to Turkey. 

Large movement or dramatic shifts in direction on any of these issues are unlikely. For now, Trump is looking to make a major deal and Turkey has none to offer him.   

With the recent delivery of the second S-400 battery, Turkey has made clear that it will not relent from its decision to acquire the Russian air and missile defence system. The U.S. decision to suspend Turkey from participation in the programme to help build and operate F-35 advanced fighter jets looks equally firm. 

Turkey cannot afford to offend Russia and terminate the S-400 deal as it needs Russia’s support to confront the growing power of Iran in Iraq and Syria. Losing the F-35s is a small price to pay for gaining Russian support in dealing with instability on Turkey’s southern border. Erdoğan also likely cares little for endowing the Turkish Air Force, many of whose officers played a lead role in the 2016 coup attempt, with the most sophisticated combat aircraft, or for enhancing its position with the U.S. military.  

By now Trump must have realised that the F35 programme will be able to manage without Turkey as a partner. As a proven effective military aircraft, other buyers are on the horizon, and there is little advantage in making an F-35/S-400 deal with Erdoğan at this time.

With the war in Syria grinding along, but with Islamic State mainly defeated, Trump sees little to be gained from seeking a breakthrough to align U.S. and Turkish goals in Syria. Erdoğan by now realises that his bluster on taking action against the Syrian Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG) regardless of the presence of U.S. personnel in the area only served to prolong the U.S. military presence that Trump sought to end in December 2018.  

Having established a joint Turkish-U.S. operations centre and begun joint patrols in northeast Syria, and with Turkish municipal elections finished, Erdoğan can politically afford to allow the professional diplomats and military officers to manage the Turkish position in Syria. Trump would like to withdraw all U.S. military personnel, but with the number of U.S. troops in Syria quite low, and the threat of numerous casualties among them very low, he can also afford politically to let U.S. officers manage the situation.  

A small deal on the fines to be imposed on Halkbank might be worked out, small for the U.S. Treasury, but not so for Halkbank and the Turkish economy. The outlines of a deal already exist - Erdoğan abides by the current sanctions regime against Iran, and the United States does not pursue massive fines against Halkbank. But anything more is highly unlikely; on the issue of fines for breaking earlier Iran sanctions, Turkey has little to trade and therefore little leverage with Trump.

If hydrocarbon exploration in the eastern Mediterranean comes up, Trump will certainly remind Erdoğan that any action against U.S. companies would be unacceptable. That said, as long as U.S. companies, and their Israeli partners, are able to do their work, Trump will likely leave this issue to the European Union, which has more direct interests and more leverage through its trade relations with Turkey.  

If Erdoğan raises the issue of the extradition of Gülen, look for Trump to respond that it is in the hands of the Department of Justice. With little to no electoral advantage to be gained at this time by highlighting the Gülen issue, perhaps Erdoğan will leave this issue where it belongs, with the legal authorities of both countries.  

Unfortunately, that appears to be what Trump has done with the very different case of dual U.S.-Turkish national and NASA scientist Gölge, as well as Turkish employees of the U.S. diplomatic mission. Gölge was released from jail in June after almost three years in detention, but prohibited from leaving Turkey. 

Yet Trump has not brought sufficient pressure to bear so that Gölge can return to the United States, as he did in the case of Andrew Brunson, a U.S. pastor Turkey freed and allowed to return home last year after the U.S. administration sanctioned two Turkish ministers and increased import tariffs on Turkish metals.  

The cases of the three Turkish employees of the U.S. diplomatic mission vary, but all have spent time behind bars on spurious charges. Metin Topuz, who worked for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in Istanbul as an interpreter, translator and liaison with Turkish law enforcement agencies remains in jail. Hamza Ulucay, a U.S. consulate translator, was released in January after two years in prison. Nazmi Mete Cantürk, a U.S. consulate security official, was released from house arrest in June, but is banned from leaving the country. It is doubtful Trump will raise their cases.  

There are other issues of concern between the two NATO allies, but each leader is focused on more pressing issues. For Trump it is trade with China, Iran and Taliban negotiations. For Erdoğan it is Turkey’s faltering economy, his eroding political support and the Syrian refugee problem. Expect both men to reaffirm the need for continued collaboration and cooperation, but do not expect significant deviations from their current courses of action.  

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.