Turkey and United States: daggers or détente?

Relations between the United States and Turkey have become a constantly shifting hot-and-cold war. Formally bound by an alliance, the two have been locked in a confrontation over an ever-growing list of issues, from America’s entanglement with the Syrian Kurds to the trial against Halkbank, accused of violating sanctions against Iran, and the fate of Fethullah Gülen, the alleged mastermind of the July 2016 coup attempt.

A direct military altercation between the two NATO allies has even become a realistic possibility in northern Syria, even as the two states are in a moment of détente. American pastor Andrew Brunson is out of jail, back safely in his homeland. A deal regarding the Syrian city of Manbij is being implemented. U.S.-Turkey joint patrols are keeping watch on the contested settlement held by the Kurdish YPG, an organization Turkey views as a mere extension of the outlawed PKK. In a recent gesture of goodwill, the Trump administration issued a financial reward for the arrest of the PKK’s three top leaders. Washington also granted Turkey a waiver from the new oil sanctions slapped on Iran. Turkey cancelled its punitive measures on U.S. top officials.

Normalisation appears to be the name of the game, as far as Erdoğan and Trump are concerned. But of courese this détente rests on a shaky foundation.

First off, the United States is unwilling to end its partnership with the Syrian Kurds. Washington made friends with the YPG in order to deal with the Islamic State (ISIS), which is now on the rebound along the border areas in Syria’s northeast. Looking down the road, if the U.S. strategy is geared towards containing Iran there is hardly anyone else to work with but the Kurds.

Meanwhile, as much as Ankara wants to see Iran lose ground in Syria or Iraq, Turkey is reluctant to enlist in Trump’s push back against Tehran. Russia and Iran are its partners in the Astana Process, which sets the parameters of how to divide the spoils in Syria. What’s more, last year Tehran and Ankara made common cause in Northern Iraq, checking the Kurdistan Regional Government’s bid for independence.

Some steps could be taken to improve cooperation on the ground. The Manbij model, Turkey hopes, could be tried in towns east of the Euphrates. YPG could surrender control to local units of self-government, including pro-Turkish Arabs or Kurds aligned with Ankara’s friend Massoud Barzani. But we should first see whether the Manbij experiment works before we assume it could be replicated elsewhere. For one, Turkey’s shelling last week of Kurdish forces from across the border, meant to put pressure on the United States, might well turn out to be counterproductive and lead to the derailment of the Manbij roadmap.

Second, developments in the United States do not bode well for the Turks. Erdoğan’s strategy has been predicated on the notion that he and Trump can work things out. His proxies in government and the loyalist media can bash America as much as they like, but down the road there’s always the prospect to strike a bargain. That’s what happened with Brunson. His release was meant to boost Trump’s appeal in the midterms and build goodwill between the two big men on top.

Then the Republicans lost the House, making U.S. policy decisions more complicated. Trump can make all kinds of commitments to Erdoğan but his capacity to deliver has been reduced. Congress will surely reassert itself on critical issues such as Turkey’s acquisition of Russian-made S-400 missiles, which jeopardises the Turkish role in the Washington’s F-35 consortium. The U.S. legislative branch will build up its own policy on Erdoğan, likely much tougher than that of Trump. A mirror image of America’s bifurcated response to Putin, this dual approach to Turkey was already in the making in the GOP-dominated Congress; it may now get worse. And let’s not forget that the courts are also going after Ankara with the sanctions-busting trial on state-owned Halkbank. 

Turkey is heading for local elections in March, which could mean a wave of anti-Americanism during the campaign season, particularly if the lira collapses again. Ankara wants a reset with Washington as much as it wants to mend ties with Europe. For the time being, it is making headway. But relations with America remain so devoid of trust, ridden with controversies, and vulnerable to domestic politicking that it would surprise few if Turkey and the United States were soon at loggerheads once again.

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