U.S.-Turkey relations face bleak future
America’s imposition of sanctions on Turkey brings the relationship to its lowest ebb in more than forty years. Almost as soon as the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, came into office in 2002 there have been tensions in the relationship. These manageable differences escalated considerably during the time of President Barack Obama, primarily because of his Syria policy, and now threaten to boil over. The chances to soothe a vital strategic partnership appear to be slipping.
Soon after AKP’s election, the parliament -- against Erdoğan’s wishes -- voted down a resolution that would have allowed American forces stationed in Turkey to form a “northern front” during the invasion of Iraq. The “hood event” a few months later led to a diplomatic dispute and a wave of anti-American anger in Turkey. The friction created by Erdoğan’s style was recognised early, though personalised analysis unhelpfully. The perception of U.S. diffidence in supporting Turkey after the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) renewed its terror-insurgency in 2004 was a source of some animadversions.
It was Syria’s uprising, however, that led to the sharp deterioration of U.S.-Turkish relations. Turkey, after initial hesitations, tried to secure Syrian President Bashar Assad’s downfall -- apparently in alliance with America. As it happened, Obama had other ideas. A tilt toward Iran to secure the nuclear deal put Assad off-limits and the U.S. would intervene only against the Islamic State (ISIS) -- in alliance with the People’s Protection Units, the Syrian department of the PKK. The Turks tried to work with the U.S. to constrain the YPG, but the U.S. focus on ISIS was monomaniacal.
The United States' support for an affiliate of an internationally-recognised terrorist group that the Turks regard with existential dread has been the central factor as relations spiralled downward. The fallout from the attempted coup d’état in Turkey in 2016 has only made this worse. On the one side is Erdoğan’s increasing authoritarianism. On the other, the U.S. refusal, for solid legal reasons out of the hands of its political leadership, to extradite the Islamist cleric, Fethullah Gülen, that Ankara says, with increasingly plausible evidence, was behind the putsch.
There had been signs of improvement. A roadmap had been reached over Manbij in northern Syria that, despite problems, seemed to portend progress. At the NATO summit last month, in the midst of an outburst from President Donald Trump at the other members for their lacklustre commitment to the alliance, Trump interrupted himself to say “Except for Erdoğan over here. He does things the right way,” and then actually fist-bumped the Turkish president. But in the three weeks since, relations have reached a crisis point.
One of those arrested in the dragnet after the coup attempt was Andrew Brunson, an American pastor who has been resident in Turkey for twenty years. It appears the United States tried to reach a deal where Brunson would be released in exchange for Israel releasing Ebru Ozkan, a Turkish citizen and agent of Hamas. That deal collapsed when Brunson was only released to house arrest on July 25. A week later, the U.S. Treasury imposed sanctions against two Turkish officials -- Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul and Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu -- for their “leading roles” in institutions responsible for the “unfair and unjust detention” of Brunson. These are the first U.S. sanctions against Turkey since the 1974 Cyprus crisis.
What these sanctions symbolise has created mayhem for Turkey’s currency. The case, evoking on both sides the memory of missionaries in Ottoman lands, resonates with a part of the American electorate, evangelical Christians, that Trump cannot ignore, meaning this could escalate, and if the United States applies sanctions with any teeth, catastrophic damage could be done. Given this, why not just release Brunson? When I put this question to a Turkish diplomat, the answer was simple: “We have an independent judiciary; the government can’t just release people accused of crimes.” This sound reasonable, though it strains credulity.
First, nearly a year ago, Erdoğan said in public, “They say, ‘give us the pastor (Brunson)’. You have another pastor in your hands (Gülen). Give us that pastor and we will do what we can in the judiciary to give you this one.” Second, the indictment of Brunson, accusing him of links to the “Fethullahist Terrorist Organisation” (FETO) and the PKK, is literally incredible. In essence, it accuses Brunson’s ministry of being a cover for the PKK and the “FETO structure”, to which it is said Brunson is attached, as well as espionage for foreign states, including the United States, who are apparently conspiring with these groups. The specifics are a mish-mash of conspiracy theory, conjecture, and simple error.
The case is based on three secret witnesses—codenamed Dua (Prayer), Ateş (Fire), and Göktaşı (Meteor)—plus various documents and electronic data, some of it taken from Brunson. There are convoluted stories of Mormon legions in the U.S. military and American Protestants (Brunson’s sect) who want to overthrow Erdoğan because they believe he is the anti-Christ. There is reference to a CAMA “organization to which all (American) churches are connected”, which is in fact a front for the CIA, FBI, and NSA, or the “Mormon gang” within them, anyway. A video sent by Brunson’s daughter of maklube, a Turkish dish she found while travelling in America, is said to be evidence against him since the dish is served at “meetings and religious gatherings” at the “cell houses” of FETO.
Thus, Robert Pearson, the former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, appears credible when he says Brunson’s detention “looks like a form of a hostage taking”. There is a strong suspicion Brunson was intended as leverage either in the Gülen case, or that of state-run Halkbank deputy CEO Mehmet Hakan Atilla, which has also roiled U.S.-Turkey relations. Atilla is appealing his conviction on charges of circumventing U.S. sanctions on Iran and defrauding the U.S. banking system. If this leverage was indeed the motive, it now seems like a dreadful mistake.
The outlook going forward is not encouraging. The hope of U.S. diplomats was that issues like Manbij could be kept separate, moving towards convergence even as trouble overtook other areas of the relationship. There was not much confidence this could be done. Between the human rights concerns and various ethnic and foreign lobbies, Turkey has never fared well in Congress, and Congress might yet impose more sanctions for other matters related to Iran and Russia. But now even the “wise men” at the State Department and elsewhere who kept the relationship on track are gone; there is not even a U.S. ambassador in Turkey.
There is plenty of blame to go around for it having come to this pass. The United States’ Syria policy is at the centre of the problem. Ankara’s moves to cope with the security challenges caused by the U.S. approach and attempts to alter its course have not always been wise. Officials from both sides had tried to de-escalate immediately after the sanctions against the two Turkish ministers. But with the economic distress in Turkey since then, and Erdoğan already having his finger on ultranationalism, the trajectory looks bleak.
Even as Turkey’s situation gets worse, the blame is likely to fall on America and many Turks will close ranks around Erdoğan, who cannot be seen to back down. Trump’s image is hardly one conducive to concessions and in any case this is a highly important political issue for his base. For two states that profit so much from their alliance, this is tragic.