Just as the ink was drying on my last post about US-Turkish relations, the White House announced sanctions against Turkey based on the Global Magnitsky Act, targeting the justice and interior ministers over the continued arrest of Christian pastor Andrew Brunson. Turkey has announced retaliatory measures with some sanctions of its own. It’s rather unprecedented that mutual sanctions have been imposed on fellow NATO allies. The question on many minds is how did it come to this?
There are several symptoms of the low ebb in bilateral relations. They include the presence in the US of the alleged 15 July attempted coup mastermind Fetullah Gulen, the continued detention of Pastor Brunson and other US nationals and consular workers, Turkey’s intention to purchase the Russian S400 SAMs which are incompatible with NATO hardware, and US assistance to the YPG Kurdish militia in Syria against the so-called Islamic State which Turkey says is affiliated to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
However, these are all symptoms rather than the root causes of the problem. In terms of the actual underlying reasons for the downturn in bilateral relations I contend there are 3 main reasons and a related fourth. Let me explain them one by one.
Firstly, the nature of the Turkish state is often misunderstood by both Western and Turkish officials alike. Turkey should be understood as a weak or a fragile state. Turkey has many of the attributes of a weak state. For example, the internal threat in Turkey is greater than the threat posed by its external enemies. Ankara’s two greatest existential concerns are the PKK and the Gulen movement. Sure, both have international branches and are influenced by international affairs, but they are, by and large, internal challenges to both state security and the institutions of state. Turkey also resembles a weak state because for many citizens the primary threat to their personal security is the state itself, the body which is supposed to protect them. This is the case for many Kurds in the Southeast of the country as well as those affected by the recent post 15 July 2016 purges. Let’s not also forget the marginalisation of the remnants of the Gezi movement and progressives in general, all considered fifth columnists by President Erdogan and his government. There are other factors as to why Turkey is a fragile state including the economy which often runs along patrimonial lines and is marred by corruption and nepotism.
The reason why understanding Turkey as a fragile or weak state is important because the US, or any other country for that matter, will have difficulties finding common cause with Turkey over an external enemy. Quite frankly, an international threat will always be less of a concern for Turkey which has to prioritise internal threats, or view international affairs through the lens of domestic security matters. Meanwhile, internal developments in Turkey, if not understood and acknowledged by other countries, leads to anger and recriminations. We saw this take shape after the attempted coup two years ago. Such wounds will be slow to heal.
The second factor is that Turkey does not consider itself part of the western orbit. It doesn’t see itself in the Russian orbit. Nor part of the Iranian axis either. Turkey sees itself as a great power in its own right. Whenever I read news reports about developments in US-Turkish relations and the comments of Turkish officials, I can’t help but think, “does Turkey think it is the superpower in this relationship?” The answer is yes, actually it does. Turkey suffers from delusions of grandeur when it comes to international affairs and finds it difficult to reconcile its self-image of greatness, often emanating from a selective and politicised memory its Ottoman past, with the reality that Turkey is not even a regional hegemon, let alone an international power. Turkey is a medium sized power at best, albeit one with potential if it effectively harnesses its human capacity. Sometimes Turkey needs a shock in order to recalibrate its self-image with reality. This is what happened with Russia after Moscow announced sanctions in 2015 following Turkey’s shooting down a jet hovering over its airspace. Following this wake-up call, relations between Turkey and Russia were soon back on track. Some advice to Ankara, if you live with a lion, don’t pull its tail!
The third factor is increasing authoritarianism in Turkey. Sure, President Donald Trump doesn’t exactly behave like a liberal democratic gentleman and leader of the free world either, but Turkey is on a completely different level when it comes to strongman politics, so much so that nothing of note happens without the blessing of President Erdogan. This gives the US a firm address to point the finger. These latest sanctions are a warning. Washington knows who is really in charge. And if there is any action that harms US interests, President Erdogan cannot blame shift.
Relatedly, the fourth factor (feel free to email me more) is the reality that times have changed. Turkey’s interests are not the same as those of the US and the West. Turkey also does not identify with the West as much as it used to. This fact is plain and simple and the longer this reality is ignored or swept under the carpet, the more likely these kinds of rifts will happen. It is time for a new paradigm in US-Turkish relations. I propose a transactional relationship based on selective joint interests on an ad hoc basis. After cool heads prevail and this crisis is resolved, surely this is the best way forward to build confidence and trust between both sides and, who knows, soon a lasting partnership that may once again be of a strategic nature. But that’s far into the future.
So, this begs the question, how do the sides get out of this current impasse? Stay tuned, I will offer a few words about that soon.
Once again US-Turkish relations have reached a new low. That phrase “new low” is getting a bit repetitive and overused when describing Turkey’s relations with Europe, the US and the West in general. This in itself tells us a lot.
The current crisis came after President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence both tweeted that Turkey could face harsh sanctions if Ankara does not fully release Pastor Andrew Brunson, who is currently facing trial in Turkey on trumped up (no pun intended) terrorism related charges. Ankara has responded by declaring the threats “unacceptable” and is refusing to bow down to US pressure.
The sanctions that Trump and Pence have in mind are in addition to defence budget legislation which is currently being drafted in Congress and contains clauses pertaining to Turkey’s involvement of the F35 Joint Strike Fighter programme. After the draft legislation is passed by both houses it will need a Presidential sign off. Currently the bill contains a reference to Turkey’s purchase and involvement in the F35 project, calling for Turkey’s participation to be contingent with the release of pastor Brunson and Turkey forgoing its purchase of Russian S400 surface to air missiles.
Added to this impasse is the recent victory of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in June following simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections. The overarching power of President Erdogan, secured after a constitutional referendum last year, is now all but sealed. President Erdogan’s power is so overwhelming that excuses for not releasing Brunson such insisting that Turkish courts are independent, just doesn't fly. Arguably, such excuses never washed anyway - let’s not forget that last year Erdogan offered the US a swap, Brunson for Gulen. This led to the detention of Brunsen to be labelled by some quarters “hostage diplomacy”.
This recent crisis is the latest of many fallings out between the two former allies. Currently at least a dozen US citizens are consular employees are being held in detention. There’s also the issue of US support for Kurdish militias in Syria fighting the so called Islamic State. Ankara claims these militias are affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), but the Pentagon sees as an effective indigenous force against Islamic militancy. Turkey’s decision to purchase Russian S400 Surface to air missiles, incompatible with NATO hardware, is an act that obviously strained ties. A purchase and deployment of such equipment risks the leaking of sensitive NATO military data to Russia. Meanwhile, Turkish banks, probably with the blessing of the country’s President, broke US led international sanctions against Iran. Plus, just recently Turkey rebuffed US efforts to enforce sanctions against the Islamic Republic, declaring that Turkey will not follow them. All of these issues alone are serious enough to strain relations for the foreseeable future. Taken together it is inevitable that relations have taken a nosedive.
In fact, relations have dipped so low that it would be foolhardy to expect that they will ever go back to how they were. Elsewhere I have recommended that the strategic component of the West’s relations with Turkey should be reconsidered. I think now more than ever that I am right. The strategy that some analysists and policy makers have recommended to either the US or European governments is continued engagement with Turkey. They believe that western countries should recognise and take steps towards meeting Ankara’s security needs while ensuring Ankara respects their own security concerns. Meanwhile, the argument goes, the sides should work towards greater cooperation in fields outside of the strategic dimension. This may have been sound policy advice a while ago, but quite frankly this method has been tried with Ankara over the past couple of years and is clearly not working.
Instead, it is time for the US and Europe to work towards a transactional relationship with Turkey when it comes to strategic issues. The first thing to do is recognise that the alliance between Turkey and the West is not one of mutual strategic interests, not is it one of shared values. However, there are some fields where western and Turkish interests converge and collaboration should be sought. Issues such as terrorism, aspects of regional security and the future of Syria are areas where there can be some cooperation and serious discussion.
However, this should not be mistaken for a strategic alliance and therefore the west should limit Turkish involvement in projects such as the Joint Strike Fighter and NATO operations until a time when relations improve and warrant an upgrade. However, when it comes to trade, businesses and corporations on both sides should be encouraged to invest, buy and sell until their hearts are content. The same goes for cultural diplomacy. And who knows, maybe they will be the harbinger for strategic convergence at a later date.
Although this state of affairs may seem disappointing, this is the nature of international relations. Alliance form and alliances collapse. A period of transactionalism and trade may be the step back that both sides need before relations become warm again because soon Turkey will discover that the US and the West make better bedfellows that Russia, Iran or China.
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