Is the past prelude for U.S.-Turkish relations?

Over the last year, U.S.-Turkish relations reached near crisis levels of tension. That said, in practical terms they are not much worse now than they have been over the last few years. In part, this reflects the inability or unwillingness of U.S. President Donald Trump to deal with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as one would expect from an American head of state repeatedly mislead, embarrassed, or thwarted by his Turkish counterpart.  

Will this continue in the coming year as Erdoğan pushes a foreign agenda to distract Turkish voters from their difficult economic situation? Has Trump decided Erdoğan's Turkey is so needed for U.S. strategy in the Middle East, particularly in facing Iran, that he will continue to protect Erdoğan from the wrath of U.S. senators planning punitive actions?  

Making predictions is risky, but the last couple of years indicate the narrow parameters in which relations will continue.  

First, Trump means what he says about putting America First. Just ask the Kurdish fighters in north Syria what happens when Trump decides that the U.S. national interest, as he sees it, is not served by continuing a relationship with them.  The danger facing the United States is that America First becomes America Alone. Trump might want to consult with Erdoğan’s former Foreign Minister and Prime Minister Ahmed Davutoğlu - he knows a good bit about how a nation's pursuit of its interests without regard for the impact on neighbours can lead to near isolation

Second, this Trumpian interpretation of America First has almost no concern for the internal human rights situation in other countries including NATO partners. While journalists, academics, and others in Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Russia and elsewhere face varying degrees of persecution or worse, they all know that the United States during the Trump administration will only lobby for respect for human rights in a country if it has some proximate advantage to U.S. policy goals as in Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela. The case of Hong Kong teaches this forcefully - it was the Congress and not the executive branch of the U.S. government that took the lead in calling for respect for democracy and justice in Hong Kong.

Third, the efforts to remove Trump from the Presidency either by using the findings of the Mueller report to force him to resign or by using impeachment have had no measurable effect on his conduct of foreign policy, and almost none on domestic policy.  Given the near certainty that the Senate will vote to keep Trump in office and the growing possibility that he will be re-elected due to the divisions among his political opponents, we can expect him to continue his impulsive, chaotic, and bewildering foreign policy decision-making.

For Turkey, or more precisely for Erdoğan, this means that the past two-and-a-half years of interactions with Trump serve as a template for dealing with him and the United States in the future. A list of issues that have roiled U.S.-Turkish relations and may or may not arise again in the future includes: 

Armenian Genocide:  The Congressional vote for a resolution that recognises the deportations and deaths of Armenians in 1915 at the hands of the Ottoman Empire as an act of genocide has caused a flurry of angry denunciations or cheerful praises depending on what a person believes or feels about the events of 1915. But in practical terms, it means little.  That is why Trump’s intervention with his staunch ally in the Senate, Lindsey Graham, intended only delaying, not stopping the Senate resolution approved this month. Trump will now put the issue behind him and the bellicose speeches of the Turkish government and the Turkish parliament will soon die down.

Syria:  Trump will continue to safeguard U.S. vital interests to keep Iran from forming an unmolestable land-bridge from Iran to the Mediterranean and the border of Israel.  Beyond that goal, given the demise of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State (ISIS) having morphed into a diffuse terrorist organisation rather than a terrorist state, Trump will largely leave Syria to the tender mercies of Bashar Assad, Vladimir Putin, and Erdoğan. If Erdoğan overplays his hand and lashes out at non-terrorists Kurds or others, the U.S. Senate may force Trump to respond, but Turkey’s president can be confident that Trump will not have the United States play a major role in Syria.

East Mediterranean:  Unless Turkey engages in violence against either Cyprus, Israel, or U.S. companies operating in the eastern Mediterranean hydrocarbon reserves surrounding Cyprus, Trump will likely leave the lead in this dispute to the European Union. The U.S. oil and natural gas bonanza from fracking allows Trump to worry little if at all about world oil/gas markets.  Only if Turkey sought to undermine the sovereignty of Israel or the financial interests of U.S. companies’ by impeding explorations for hydrocarbons, or their eventual delivery to world markets, would Trump be induced to intervene in what he sees mainly as an issue of EU and others.  

Gülen and his followers:  Trump may still have some advisors who would advocate for honouring the extradition request for U.S.-based Islamist cleric Fethullah Gülen regardless of the insufficient evidence provided to date by Ankara to prove Gülen’s involvement in a failed coup attempt in 2016. But, Attorney General William Barr is not someone who will accept to bend the law to suit the political expediencies of the president.  At the same time, Erdoğan has gotten just about as much political capital from coup prosecutions, fair and unfair, that he can. The Turkish state will continue to press for the extradition of Gülen and many of his followers from the United States and European countries, but dealing with the economic crisis looming in Turkey captures the voters’ attention more than does efforts against alleged coup plotters.

NATO/Russia:  Some Washington-based pundits may call for Turkey’s expulsion from NATO, but such calls will go unheeded. Trump seems to have decided that NATO is useful to the United States and therefore no longer treats it with disdain, though he continues to complain that many NATO allies have hollowed out their militaries.  

Having decided that Turkey turned to Russia for an air defence system because former U.S. President Barack Obama would not sell Patriots to Turkey, and unconcerned by the loss of Turkish participation in the U.S.-led programme to build F-35 fighter jets, Trumps attaches far less importance to Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400 system than does the U.S. Senate.  It is worth noting that the U.S. defence funding bill for 2020 approved last week includes funds for the long-term storage of up to 6 F-35s earmarked for Turkey as well as a call for Trump to impose economic sanctions under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA. Apparently the U.S. Congress is willing to pay to put a definitive end to Turkey’s participation in the F-35 program.

In sum, Erdoğan has been successfully navigating the U.S.-Turkey relations with the aid of Trump’s personal admiration for him, Trump’s focus elsewhere, and the voices of a few influential advisors who view Erdoğan’s maladministration of Turkey as a temporary challenge to be tolerated so U.S. interests with a geo-strategically significant ally can endure.  Any checks on Erdoğan’s adventurism in Syria, Libya, the Eastern Mediterranean or elsewhere as he seeks to distract the Turkish public’s attention from the current economic situation will have to come from within not from abroad.  

© Ahval English

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

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