How strained are Turkish-U.S. relations?

The United States' decision to impose sanctions on Turkey's justice and interior ministers, over Ankara's continued detention of the American Pastor Andrew Brunson, has resulted in denunciation and threats of retaliation from Ankara and follows approximately three years of continuously strained relations between the two long-time allies.

With Turkey imposing tit-for-tat retalitory sanctions on U.S. officials and accusing President Donald Trump of “taking a very small case and jeopardizing Turkish-American relations and Turkish-American friendship” the widespread speculation in recent years that Turkey's relationship with the United States and NATO could become irreparably damaged appears closer to reality. Since 2014 Turkey and the U.S. have been at loggerheads over the latter's support for the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) group, which Ankara views as a terrorist organization, against Islamic State (ISIS). Also, the U.S. refusal to extradite Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara insists was behind the July 15 2016 coup attempt, further soured relations.

Washington has also expressed distaste over Turkey's more recent order of sophisticated S-400 air defense missile systems from Moscow, which it believes could undermine the Turkish military's hardware compatibility with fellow NATO militaries. Regarding the sale of the new U.S. fifth-generation F-35 Lightning II jet fighters to Turkey many in the U.S. Congress argue that Washington should violate its current deal to supply Turkey with these jets in light of Ankara's S-400 purchase. The U.S. has also offered to sell Turkey Patriot air defense missiles, a system Ankara doesn't want over the S-400 but has suggested it might buy in addition to the S-400, since it says Washington isn't willing to provide the technology transfers Turkey seeks.

Despite all this U.S. Secretary of State James Mattis has insisted that the deal go ahead and has strongly urged Congress not to block it. Turkey even held a ceremony to mark the future delivery of the jets in June. Also, despite its bluster over U.S. support for the YPG for almost half-a-decade now Ankara has not closed Adana Province's Incirlik Airbase, a strategic asset the coalition has been using to launch many of its airstrikes against ISIS, since reopening it for coalition use in July 2015.

Furthermore, over the summer Ankara and Washington reached a deal over the status of Manbij, a Syrian Arab city previously captured by the YPG from ISIS in the summer of 2016. The U.S. has facilitated the withdrawal of the YPG from that flashpoint urban center – it previously promised Turkey on the eve of the Manbij offensive in May 2015 that those Kurdish forces would not remain there following ISIS's expulsion – and both sides began conducting a series of patrols in the area last June. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has stressed that this roadmap agreement between the two will not be affected by this latest spat over sanctions. Turkish FM Cavusoglu also said his post-sanctions meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was “extremely constructive.”

Turkey's Treasury and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak also stressed that there is a “strong will” on both sides to resolve this current impasse. He said that despite the current differences “the rope will never be broken” when it comes to their longstanding relationship. Albayrak even compared the relationship to family members such as “husbands and wives who've been married for 40 years” and “cannot agree on everything. They sometimes argue with each other, but they later come to an agreement.”

Fundamental differences persist. Michael Werz, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, argues that it may now “be time for American policymakers to start thinking differently about Turkey, which has begun to bear more resemblance to Saudi Arabia than it does to a democratic NATO partner.”

“Washington may have no choice but to accept the new reality,” Werz told Ahval News. “Still, such a change in perspective – from viewing Turkey as a democratic ally to viewing it as an authoritarian state important to U.S. foreign policy – inevitably will have consequences in terms of the quality and durability of bilateral ties. Fundamentally, the United States should no longer be shy about bringing leverage to bear on Turkey.”

Werz believes “it is difficult to predict how far Turkey's autocratic drift and anti-Western nationalism will go, how long it will endure, or how close Ankara’s relations with Moscow will become.”

“It would be prudent for the United States and its fully democratic NATO allies to begin insulating their shared security architecture from the potential worst-case scenario,” he concluded. “This effort should be both iterative and reversible, responding to Turkey’s actions, but it should begin now.”

The U.S. previously imposed an arms embargo on Turkey following its invasion of northern Cyprus in 1974 but later lifted it in 1978. While Turkey did shut U.S. military facilities on its soil during this time it kept NATO facilities, primarily Incirlik, open. It's unclear if today will be any different.

“It is uncharted waters. This differs from Cyprus because the dynamics of the relationship has changed.” Aaron Stein, a Senior Resident Fellow at The Atlantic Council think-tank's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, told Ahval News. “Turkey is not nearly as dependent on Washington as it once was. And yet, Turkey doesn’t have any other alliance it can turn to, without undermining its own power. It is quite the pickle.”

Turkey initially joined NATO, and by extension the Western camp in the Cold War, in 1952 following Soviet leader Joseph Stalin's aggressive posturing and attempts to force Ankara to cede parts of Anatolia to the Soviet Union and give Moscow a base in the strategic Dardanelles. Stalin's successor, Nikita Khrushchev, openly blamed the late Soviet leader for essentially driving the Turkish republic into the arms of the West by adapting such an unneccessarily aggressive policy against a country which, hitherto, had no real quarrel with Moscow for decades.

It's not necessarily likely that current disagreements between Ankara and Washington will compel Ankara to align itself more closely with Russia at the direct expense of the U.S./NATO.

“One should approach bilateral relations by default by remembering that neither Turkey, nor US is interested or wants complete rupture,” Timur Akhmetov, a Turkey-based researcher at the Russian International Affairs Council, told Ahval News. “Today's discussions are caused primarily by desire of Turkey to redefine its alliance relations with the West while staying a part of its security arrangements.”

Turkey, he went on to explain, wants “more freedom of action, immunity from western criticism and indulgence when it is forced to act against U.S. interests when pursuing its own national interests, such as providing national security in light of threats coming from terrorist groups.”

Akhmetov also argues that this latest spat is not only about Turkey but more broadly “about defining new rules of cooperation in a multipolar world order.”

“I think both sides are interested in handling this transition without seriously endangering relations, especially in area of military security cooperation. In this context it is important to soberly assess Russian principle position on these processes,” he elaborated. “Russia doesn't want to re-pivot Turkey to itself, but rather, by providing alternative geopolitical options, nurture power centers that can be independent from the United States. Russia is fine living in a multipolar world it is promoting.”

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