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Ilhan Tanir
Feb 16 2019

Who is David Satterfield, Trump's nominee for Ankara?

The President of the United States, Donald Trump, officially nominated David Satterfield to be the next U.S. ambassador to Turkey. 

Satterfield is a career member of the senior Foreign Service and has been the acting assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs since 2017, the White House said in the nomination announcement. In his capacity as special envoy for Syria, he did not need Congressional confirmation as he was in the acting position. He is described as “a seasoned professional diplomat” to Ahval by one of his former colleagues from the State Department

Satterfield spent quite a few years in Iraq after the invasion in 2003. He was a deputy mission chief in Baghdad until 2006.

Satterfield is known as a “brilliant Arabist” in some circles in Washington. His Arabic, according to people who know him closely, is close to perfect as he once served as an interpreter for a tete-a-tete between then the U.S. General for Iraqi operation David Petraeus and the former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, with no official interpreter, to work on the plans for Sadr city.  

Different than many other previous U.S. ambassadors to Ankara, Satterfield does not speak Turkish. Along with Arabic, he speaks Italian and French. Previous ambassadors John Bass and Frank Ricciardione knew Turkish.

He may face an uphill battle at the Senate confirmation hearings as issues surrounding the relationship between the United States and Turkey are overwhelming. 

One of the most pressing issues in 2019 for both countries, one that will most likely be raised during the confirmation hearings, is definitely Turkey’s decision to purchase the Russian made S-400 air defence system. The U.S. officials and previous Congressional delegations repeatedly told Turkey that Ankara cannot receive F-35s if it goes ahead with the planned transfer of S-400s. 

On Thursday, the Congress passed a wide-ranging spending bill that also blocks the delivery of new generation fighter jets F-35s to Turkey until the Pentagon submits a report to the Congress regarding the national security consequences of Ankara acquiring Russian S-400. Turkey has been one of the dozen Western allies invested into the program and in the chain of production for more than a decade.

Satterfield will also most likely face a set of difficult questions with regards to Syria’s northeast where Ankara wants to establish a 20-25 kilometre deep safe zone all the way to the Iraqi border to wipe out the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), which the Turkish administration recognises as a terrorist organisation and the extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). As opposed to PKK, no other country recognises YPG as a terrorist organisation.  Satterfield is expected to face questions on the situation of  human rights and freedoms in Turkey as well.

Meanwhile, neither the U.S. led Global Coalition members nor the Astana’s Russia and Iran support the plans for Turkish-controlled safe zone.

According to his official bio, Ambassador Satterfield served at the United States embassies in Syria and Saudi Arabia as well as other senior assignments, including Deputy Assistant Secretary, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, and Acting Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs from 2001 to 2005.

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