Paul Iddon
Aug 14 2018

How close are U.S.-Turkish relations to rupturing?

On Friday, August 10 U.S. President Donald Trump upped the ante in the current diplomatic feud between Ankara and Washington, tweeting that he had just doubled the tariffs on steel and aluminium “with respect to Turkey as their currency, the Turkish Lira, slides rapidly downward against our very strong Dollar! Aluminium will now be 20% and Steel 50%. Our relations with Turkey are not good at this time!”

This came shortly after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan vowed his country would “not lose the economic war”, urging Turks to “ignore campaigns against Turkey” and declaring that the Americans “may have their dollars, but we have our people and God”.

The Turkish lira is presently at an historic low partially as a result of the latest diplomatic crisis with the United States, which quickly escalated over Turkey's continued detention of American pastor Andrew Brunson, but also comes after years of simmering disagreements. Both Trump and Erdoğan often engage in both bellicose and populist rhetoric and are similar demagogic personalities. As a result when they are at loggerheads it may be very difficult for either of them to give ground.

The U.S. sanctions on two Turkish ministers over the continued detention of Brunson has led many Turks, even those critical of Erdoğan, to rally around the flag and the leader against external pressure on their country. The right-wing Turkish press has often blamed the United States for the July 15, 2016 coup attempt and frequently talks about American plots to dismantle the Turkish republic altogether, through its ad-hoc support of the Syrian Kurds in the war against Islamic State.

A mere two days before Trump's latest input into this tit-for-tat feud the Turkish Association for Social Justice and Aid – a group of lawyers including prominent Erdoğan supporters – filed a 60-page criminal complaint urging Ankara to prevent the U.S. Air Force from continuing to use Incirlik Airbase and even arrest U.S. personnel there who they allege were involved in the aforementioned coup attempt.

While this is certainly a low-point in relations, as noted here before, it does not necessarily mean that U.S.-Turkish relations are about to completely rupture, never mind deteriorate to a point where Washington and Ankara might actually go to war against each other, as analyst Michael Rubin has suggested could be a possibility.

A point of no return clearly has not yet been reached. For one, Trump's Twitter diplomacy is prone to vacillate. For example, the president initially celebrated the Saudi-led blockade on Qatar, a close Turkish ally in the region, last summer and even sought to take credit for it before making a 180-degree turn and urging a diplomatic process to bring an end to the crisis to avert conflict.

As for Turkey, diplomatic spats with the Netherlands and Germany, which included very heated rhetoric, particularly when Erdoğan called both country's Nazis, seem to be coming to an end and normalisation processes are presently underway. Hürriyet News columnist Barçın Yinanç recently referred to these cases and suggested that a similar formula could help repair the current rift between Ankara and Washington.

“Brunson is just the tip of the iceberg,” she wrote. “We may soon see Brunson flying to the U.S. in return for a positive development in the Halkbank case. This might stop the melting of the Turkish lira, but will it also melt the iceberg that prevents the warming of relations?”

The Halkbank case refers to the sentencing of one of that Turkish state-run bank's executives, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, in New York to 32 months in prison in May on charges of helping Iran avoid U.S. sanctions.

A return to normal relations is still probably some time away. Nevertheless, that does not mean a total breakdown is imminent, nor that a point of no return has been reached. A complete breakdown in relations between Turkey and the United States would constitute the biggest rupture in the status quo between Washington and a major regional ally since the Iranian revolution deposed the last shah in 1979.

Even during that tumultuous time, Washington tried to retain relations with the emerging regime led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, with Khomeini even telling the Americans he could preserve their interests in Iran if Washington withdrew support from the imperial Iranian military and allowed him to takeover. “You will see we are not in any particular animosity with the Americans,” Khomeini said. As recently declassified U.S. documents reveal: “Only two days after the shah departed Tehran, the U.S. told a Khomeini envoy that they were – in principle – open to the idea of changing the Iranian constitution, effectively abolishing the monarchy.”

Of course, such efforts to establish a workable relationship between the United States and the infant Islamic Republic were ultimately dashed by the infamous embassy takeover on November 4 1979, which began the last four decades of adversarial relations between the two countries.

Khomeini did not orchestrate, nor order the embassy seizure, it was carried out by a group of zealous students acting on their own accord. He simply took advantage of it for his own ends when he saw the momentum it generated. Any potentially similar incident in today's Turkey, such as an attack on U.S. personnel stationed in Incirlik or American civilians in the country, by zealous Erdoğan supporters – likely whipped into a frenzy by the numerous conspiratorial anti-American screeds published almost daily in the right-wing Turkish press – acting on their own accord could spark a major crisis if Erdoğan, like Khomeini, opts to endorse their actions.

The United States' partnership with Pakistan over the years is a more contemporary example that is worth bearing in mind when contemplating the future of U.S.-Turkish relations. Islamabad and Washington have had numerous fundamental divergent interests, particularly regarding Afghanistan. The United States knows that Pakistan has actively sought to undermine it and supported its enemies but nevertheless preserved a quasi-workable partnership with the troubled country.

It has done so under the logic that having such a partnership with Islamabad is a more favourable status quo than confronting the country as an enemy. As Daniel S. Markey, a senior research professor at John Hopkins University, once succinctly summed it up: “if by our actions we chose to forgo some of the narrow benefits of working with them and treated them as pure adversaries that would probably end up more costly to us than the current messy state-of-affairs.”   

Turkey cannot afford to alienate the United States and Europe completely and rely entirely on Russia, or anyone else. The seven months of sanctions Moscow levelled against Turkey, in retaliation for Ankara's shooting down of a Russian bomber flying over its border with Syria in November 2015, demonstrated that Turkey cannot rely entirely on good relations with one major world power over the other.

While Turkey does have the second largest army in NATO and is geopolitically a very important country, it has far less leverage over the United States than the United States has over it. Washington has access to other airbases in the region it could use instead of Incirlik and already proved it had alternative options when Turkey refused to permit the Americans to use that strategically-important facility to support the invasion of Iraq back in 2003.

More broadly Turkey is far too integrated into Western economies to afford a major breakdown in relations. As one Turkish professor told the Financial Times: “Turkey cannot be a prosperous country while fighting with the U.S. or the EU.”

What is more likely to become the case in the near future is a status quo whereby the United States and Turkey see eye-to-eye far less than before, but nevertheless retain workable relations. In other words, they may no longer be “friends” for some time to come, but are not necessarily going to become outright enemies neither.