How will the New Trump White House get along with Erdoğan?


Philip S. Kosnett, the current chargé d'affaires at the U.S. embassy in Ankara, was nominated to be ambassador to Kosovo by U.S. President Donald Trump last week. Kosnett is expected to be confirmed by the Senate and sent to Kosovo in the next few months. His departure from Turkey was widely anticipated.

Washington sources told Ahval that Kosnett is expected to be replaced by Jeffrey Hovenier, the recently departed chargé d'affaires at the U.S. embassy in Berlin.

At a time when the U.S. government is putting off nominating a new ambassador to Turkey, the prospective nominees for the number two position, the chargé d'affaires, is even more significant.

For the last few months, Hovenier has been rumoured to be preparing for his new job in Turkey. State Department officials have not confirmed the reports. Hovenier does not have a resume on the U.S. State Department website, but according to his LinkedIn profile, he has been working for the department for 28 years and has a master's degree in international relations from Georgetown University. It says he has worked as a State Department official in Paraguay, Panama, Croatia, Montenegro, Austria and Serbia.

Hovenier also worked as director of narcotics and law enforcement at the U.S. embassy in Peru. In 2000, Hovenier was involved with the reestablishment of the United States embassy in Belgrade, Serbia. In a speech he gave in 2011, Hovenier talked about being a devout Mormon and the inspiration and help he received from his beliefs in his public assignments.

But that still leaves the post of U.S. ambassador to Turkey open as it has been for more than a year. Last month, Colonel Richard Outzen, a member of the U.S. State Department policy planning staff and expert on Turkey said during a think-tank panel discussion that acting Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield could be the next ambassador to Turkey. A State Department official, military or not, suggesting a likely candidate for such a position before it is announced by the White House is a rare thing.

A Middle East expert in Washington said this could be due to the chaos in the White House and the record turnover of senior staff in the Trump administration.

Some Western diplomatic sources in Washington believe Satterfield, because of his regional perspective and experience, could be the best choice for leading the U.S. embassy in Ankara considering Turkey’s involvement in Syria, its conflict with Kurdish groups and issues with Iraq and Gulf states.

A retired U.S. diplomat said Satterfield had experienced formidable problems with Congress over Iraq and Iran while serving as Iraq adviser about a decade ago and could face an uphill battle in confirmation hearings if he is appointed. Whoever is nominated to be ambassador though, will likely face very tough confirmation hearings as the members of the U.S.

Congress are extremely angry with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, particularly over Turkey’s imprisonment of American Pastor Andrew Brunson’s for nearly two years on charges of terrorist propaganda. When Satterfield was appointed as acting assistant secretary for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs in April 2017, he did not go through a confirmation.

A source who closely follows Congressional interactions with the White House said Mitch McConnell, the Senate’s Republican majority leader had advised the White House to prioritise Supreme Court and other federal court confirmations over risky nominations that will eat into his political capital.

All of these different forces pulling from various interest groups might help explain the White House's failure to appoint an ambassador to Ankara for more than a year since the Ambassador John Bass was appointed to the U.S. embassy in Afghanistan. It might also explain why some State Department officials might be trying to speed up the process by publicly putting forward names. At the end of this process, the Trump administration still might end up choosing a political appointee rather than career diplomat, one diplomatic source said.

Satterfield is still the leading candidate, but as long as the White House does not make an announcement, it remains only as a strong rumour.

To replace Satterfield as assistant secretary of state for near east affairs, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has nominated David Schenker, a Washington Institute expert known to be sympathetic to pro-Israel and anti-Iran policies – the exact opposite of those held by Erdoğan.

We should mention that Yuri Kim has been appointed to oversees Turkey, Greece and Cyprus in the Bureau of European and Eurasian affairs. A career diplomat, Kim recently served in the U.S. embassy in Turkey for three years.

In parallel to the State Department, Trump's National Security Advisor John Bolton has added two new deputies to his team who are known to be hawks and anti-Islamists. One of them is Fred Fleitz. He joined Bolton's team as his deputy at the National Security Council and is known for his hawkish stance towards Islamists.

In the past, Fleitz has worked at some think-tanks perceived to be Islamophobic. Bolton this week appointed Mira Ricardel as his deputy. Ricardel is also known for her antipathy for Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood.

This both the White House and the State Department have in recent months appointed officials known to be opposed to Erdoğan’s brand of Islamism.

The expectation in Washington is that Bolton wants to sign a landmark designation to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group. Such a decision could add to the problems between Turkey and the United States considering that Erdoğan is, in some sense, the informal leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in the region. In some circles, Erdoğan’s party is called as Turkish Muslim Brotherhood.

Meanwhile, issues related to the U.S. Senate’s decision to prohibit the sale of F-35 advanced fighter jets to Turkey is expected to be resolved by a conference group within Congress before the end of July. A final consensus bill is expected to have some type of sanction provisions on Turkey and that would need to be signed by Trump.

Contrary to what the Turkish foreign minister has said, the Trump team does not seem likely to get involved with the F-35 issue, at least for now. Not only that, the White House did not even issue a press statement about Trump’s phone call to congratulate Erdoğan on his election victory. White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders declined to comment on the call and said she would look into whether Trump had congratulated Erdoğan.

The U.S. government has also not sent any special delegation for Erdoğan’s inauguration ceremony for Monday, but is only represented by the U.S. current top diplomat, Kosnett.

In light of this series of appointments, Turkish-U.S. relations are set for a bumpy ride.

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