The New Normal, much like the Old

Turkey’s improved relations with the United States have not reached the level of truly warm and friendly, a level more mythical than real in the almost 100 years of relations between the two republics.

On Friday, the Trump administration lifted sanctions against two ministers imposed in response to the unfair incarceration of the American pastor Andrew Brunson, whose subsequent release obviated the purpose of such sanctions, and granted waivers from the imposition of penalties on Turkish businesses and individuals trading in Iranian petroleum products. 

Even if the details regarding the waivers present difficulties for Turkish businesses, the inclusion of Turkey among the eight “friends and allies” being granted waivers from particular U.S. sanctions against Iran indicates that relations are improving. Yet there is no indication thus far on the status of increased U.S. imposed tariffs on imports of Turkish steel and aluminium imposed in response to the Brunson affair.

That said, we must not read too much into these events, for problems continue. Though distracted by the U.S. mid-term elections and recent attacks in the United States, many members of the administration and even more in Congress still resent several of Turkey’s policy proposals.  

True, the calls for Turkey’s expulsion from NATO have dissipated, particularly among the Evangelical members of Congress who treated Brunson’s unfair incarceration as proof that Turkey had turned its back on its Western allies and the secular tradition of respect for personal religious freedom. 

Yet, many in the U.S. foreign policy community have lingering concerns about Turkey’s cosy relations with Moscow, evidenced by Ankara’s proposed purchase of the Russian S-400 air and missile defence system, and its apparent willingness to treat other members of the alliance as natural adversaries instead of friends or allies.  

Much of this animosity towards Turkey can be laid at the feet of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Supporters of liberal democratic practices beyond the ballot box (independent judiciaries, separation of powers, robust civil society, most especially a free press not subject to coercion and intimidation) remain appalled by the Turkish state’s treatment of those who speak out against its president’s policies.  

There will be little or no help from the United States for those seeking to strengthen liberal democratic practices within Turkey. Setting Brunson free while continuing the incarceration of dual U.S.-Turkish national Serkan Golge and three Turkish employees of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Turkey reveals how important one’s citizenship is to the Trump administration in the fight for justice in Turkey.

Likewise, the near disappearance of the Khashoggi case from most U.S. media outlets indicates how shallow and weak will be U.S. efforts regarding rule of law and human rights in other countries when speaking out about rights violations that might impede U.S. foreign policy objectives (for example, success of Iranian sanctions). The Washington Post and others continue efforts to motivate the Trump administration to demand the truth from Saudi Arabia about the authors and perpetrators of Khashoggi’s murder, but given the lack of interest in this heinous crime by most of the U.S. electorate, the White House has figured out it can continue its strong embrace of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in pursuit of U.S. interests.

From the perspective of the United States, the paramount policy concern in Turkey’s region remains Iran. The inter-related issues from this concern require a bit of dissection. 

Via its sanction policy, the United States has steadily reduced Iranian petroleum exports by 30 to 40 percent. November 5 brings in a more onerous policy, with stiff penalties for those violating US sanctions. But blocking all Iranian petroleum from world markets would drive up the price of petroleum products - most unwelcome by U.S. consumers (aka voters). Thus, the United States persuades the Saudis to pump more and add to global petroleum stocks to soften the impact (on U.S. voters) of reducing Iranian oil exports. The U.S. administration has reportedly been working with Saudi and Kuwaiti officials to resolve a production sharing dispute in the neutral zone between the two countries and working with Iraqi and Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) officials to open up oil exports to Turkey from Iraq. 

The former would stabilise global oil production, the latter would be of great benefit to Turkey as it seeks to avoid U.S. sanctions and the severe penalties for non-compliance. In both cases, it shows the lengths to which the United States will go as it pursues its Iran policy.

The foregoing paragraph reveals the importance to U.S. policy towards Iran of maintaining strong, positive relations with Saudi Arabia. Thus, unless the king indicates to the U.S. leadership that the crown prince has lost his support, the United States will continue to engage and work closely with Prince Mohammed regardless of the results of the investigation into the heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi. This is not to say that Prince Mohammed has not been weakened (the U.S. push for a ceasefire in Yemen reveals he has lost some clout), but simply that his fate is in the hands of the king, not the hands of the investigators, nor of Erdoğan, who has gained political strength by his handling of the Khashoggi murder.

Erdoğan has portrayed himself, supported by many in the Turkish media, as a seeker of justice and truth, yet not going so far as to openly declare the king or the crown prince directly responsible for Khashoggi’s death, and he is unlikely to do so. Instead, he has polished his credentials on the world as a reasonable actor, a disinterested party only seeking to bring the truth to light. All the while, countless journalists, academics, teachers, physicians and others languish in prison, others seek asylum in foreign lands, and thousands have lost their jobs on spurious charges. Erdoğan has taken advantage of the Turkey reference in most U.S. headlines to be about nasty, vile Saudi assassins instead of unfairly arrested journalists and others.

Of course, it could all blow up in his and our faces if Turkish efforts against Syrian Kurdish fighters of the YPG result in the death of U.S. military personnel. Given the intense efforts by the United States to prevent such an outcome in the Syria-Turkey border region, it is likely that U.S. commanders on the ground would not consider the death of U.S. personnel at the hands of their NATO ally Turkey to be inadvertent, nor would senior leaders at the White House or in Congress.  

In sum, waivers of sanction penalties among other “friends and allies” and the lifting of Brunson-related sanctions are good news for Turkey, but underlying areas of disagreement linger in the background of the Nov. 6 U.S. mid-term elections. Whether on tariffs, Gülen, the sale of F-35s, drilling for oil near Cyprus, etc., the presidents of the United States and Turkey will continue to manage challenging relations as each seeks to put into reality his view of what is best for his country.