Strictly speaking, this is not the first time that Washington has imposed sanctions against Turkey. But the circumstances are entirely different, which makes the present crisis far more intractable.
The US imposed an arms embargo on Turkey in 1975 followed the latter’s invasion and occupation of Northern Cyprus. Ankara retaliated by shutting down all US bases in Turkey. Nonetheless, it wasn’t really symptomatic of a breakdown in the ‘bilateral’ Turkish-American relationship as such – although, it took over three years and protracted negotiations for the status quo to be restored.
The Turkish military, which was traditionally the most effective Cold War era interlocutor for Washington, played a key role at that time. But in the present era, ‘Pashas’ are no longer calling the shots in Ankara.
A ceremonial group photo in the morning newspapers on the re-convened National Security Council meeting on Thursday (which comprises the civilian and military leaders) brought this out poignantly. The ‘Pashas’ in uniform lined up on the third row, while President Recep Erdogan stood alone by himself in the front with the cabinet ministers standing behind him in the second row.
Anti-American mood in a pro-Western state
Washington may not realize that its capacity to leverage Turkish government decisions is very limited in the Erdogan era. Again, the public’s mood is vehemently anti-American and the politicians are acutely conscious of that.
Soon after news about the US sanctions trickled in on Wednesday evening the ruling party joined hands with the three other mainstream parties to issue a joint statement. It said: “We say ‘no’ to the US threats with common solidarity and determination of our nation,” and demanded reciprocal action by Erdogan. Indeed, a spokesman for the liberal opposition Good Party demanded that “the government should seize the Trump Towers” in Istanbul.
Yet, Erdogan himself is keeping silent and awaiting feedback from Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who met US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Singapore on the sidelines of the ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting. The possibility of a face-saving formula emerging cannot be ruled out.
Erdogan and President Trump exchanged views on the sidelines of the recent NATO summit in Brussels regarding the ongoing trial of pastor Andrew Brunson, who is the central figure in the present crisis. Indications were that Erdogan might set the pastor free and eventually let him return to the US, as Trump had demanded.
But then, something snapped and Trump acted in the meantime. To be sure, one thing Erdogan will want to hear from Cavusoglu is whether it was only a coincidence that on Wednesday, as the Treasury Department in Washington announced the decision on sanctions against Turkey, in the Cabinet Room of the White House Trump presided over an unprecedented meeting of “inner city pastors” who were praising him, saying it was gratifying that “Christians would have a friend in the White House” and the country had a president “having an ear to hear from God.”
Having said that, Erdogan is obliged to act – and be seen as acting forcefully. Fundamentally, though, the US-Turkish faceoff has become extremely complicated.
Tension over Kurds, Syria, Gulen, Iran
At the very core, from the Turkish perspective, there are two issues. First, the US crossed a ‘red line’ two years ago by going back on solemn assurances given to Ankara that its military alliance with Syrian Kurds was a limited affair. But, a denouement may still be possible in the near future when the US withdraws from Syria, which seems likely.
But the second issue presents a Gordian knot – Turkey’s demand for the extradition of the Islamist preacher Fethullah Gulen, who lives in exile in Pennsylvania. Ankara has named Gulen as the mastermind behind the 2016 failed coup attempt against Erdogan and claims to possess evidence that pastor Brunson had links with ‘Gulenists’ and the plotters of the coup. In fact, Erdogan has accused the US of “siding with the coup plotters” and of protecting Gulen.
Meanwhile, regional issues have become a major factor in the steady deterioration of Turkish-American ties. If the Syrian conflict was a source of friction during the Barack Obama presidency, the deep chill in Turkey’s relations with Israel and the cordiality in Turkish-Iranian ties top the list at present. Over and above, Erdogan’s ‘pivot to the East’ causes unease in Europe and the US – although no one in Washington cares to make a fair judgment as to what pushed him in that direction.
The paradox is that Erdogan wants Turkey to be part of the West, as his recent performance at the NATO summit testifies. But he also seeks “strategic autonomy” for Turkey so that its unique circumstances of geography, history and culture can be optimally exploited.
Is he not aware that Turkey’s importance to Russia or China would significantly diminish if Turkey moved out of the Western alliance? Of course, he is. Clearly, Turkey’s interests are best served by its ‘Westernism’, which is the legacy of Ataturk, the legendary founder and first president of the modern Turkish Republic.
A classic regional ‘swing’ state
From the American side, a sense of urgency is needed that without a relationship of mutual trust with Ankara, the US’ regional strategies will be seriously handicapped vis-à-vis the Russian thrust into the heart of the Middle East. But for that, a profound sense of history is needed – that Turkey is a classic “swing” state, whose positioning impacts regional balance.
During the Trump era, with its enthusiasm for transactional relationships with the Muslim Middle East, Turkey may not get the priority it expects as the US’ key regional partner. On the other hand, seven more years of drift may leave little to be salvaged out of the train wreck.
What comes to mind is Charles Dickens’ sad novel ‘The Bleak House’, where members of the squabbling Jarndyce family resort to protracted litigation over rival claims for assets and end up bankrupt while corrupt lawyers walked away laughing.