Solution of Turkish-American problems postponed

As more details emerge from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Washington last week we may now make an updated assessment of the talks.

The list of issues discussed was long. It included Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 air defence missiles, the suspension of Turkey’s participation in the programme to build F-35 stealth fighter jets, the extradition of the Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen, Turkey’s military operation in Syria, the so-called Armenian genocide resolution adopted in the House of Representatives, the fine to be imposed on a state-owned Turkish bank for circumventing sanctions on Iran, and a standing item in high-level U.S.-Turkish meetings; raising the volume of bilateral trade to $100 billion a year.

Two issues stood out for the U.S. side: the S-400 and U.S. relations with the Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria. Other issues were also taken up, but the tough bargaining seems to have concentrated on these two.

U.S. President Donald Trump, in his address to the press before the bilateral talks, singled out these two subjects and said they were crucial to U.S. relations with Turkey.

Three days before Erdoğan’s visit, U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O. Brian said Congress would be ready to impose sanctions on Turkey unless it abandoned the S-400 purchase. He warned that both chambers of the Congress would approve the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), and added that Trump would convey this message to his Turkish counterpart during the visit.

Trump must have done his best to convey the message to his guest during the closed-door meeting. We also know that during a meeting organised by Trump to bring together Erdoğan and five Republican senators that they focused on the S-400 issue.

The Washington Post said Trump sent a second letter to Erdoğan before his visit – in addition to an earlier unusually loose-worded letter on Oct. 9. In it, Trump said Turkey would be re-admitted to the F-35 programme if it refrained from deploying the S-400 system, allowed U.S. observers to control whether it was deployed, and committed itself not to buy more Russian weapons. Otherwise Turkey would face sanctions.

On the subject of U.S. relations with the Kurdish YPG, the U.S. side seemed unmoved. Erdoğan repeated in Trump’s presence and in front of reporters that YPG fighters are nothing but terrorists. Trump repeated in turn that the United States would continue to maintain good relations with the group.

The U.S. side can hardly be blamed for not having properly conveyed its message to Turkey. Erdoğan’s comments after his return to Turkey indicate the Turkish side has well received the message.

In his address to his parliamentary party, Erdoğan admitted that Turkish-U.S. relations were crossing a critical path and that he was trying to overcome the difficulties. He said he had explained to Trump how things came to this point – meaning that under the Obama administration, the U.S. offer of Patriot missiles was expensive and did not include technology transfer. He also told his members of parliament that it was difficult for Turkey to step back on the S-400 issue and that, if a country were prevented from doing what it needed for its national defence, it would constitute an interference in its sovereignty.

He said Trump understood the logic of Turkey’s position and that he was looking for solutions, but the U.S. president had constraints because of the impeachment process and elections next year.

Despite the good will of both presidents, the problem remains unresolved. They adopted a pragmatic approach by not forcing a solution during this visit. They decided to refer the problems to a committee to be composed of the foreign ministers, with the participation of intelligence and defence experts from both governments.

The prospects of a quick solution appear to be dim. They will probably remain unresolved until there is light at the end of the tunnel in the impeachment process and presidential elections.

How the issues between Turkey and the United States will be solved depends on the outcome of these two crucial events.


© Ahval English

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