It has been weeks since the falling out between the US and Turkey over the continued detention of pastor Andrew Brunson, a symptom of many problems between the two countries. Just to briefly recap, some of the other outstanding issues between the sides include Turkey’s anger at US support for Kurdish forces affiliated to the PKK in Syria; the violation of the Iran Sanctions Act by a Turkish state-owned bank, possibly with the full knowledge or even behest of the highest levels of the Turkish government; Turkey’s intent to purchase Russian S400 surface to air missiles; and the residence in the US of Fetullah Gulen who Ankara blames for the July 2016 attempted coup.
Despite the US sanctions which wreaked havoc on the already vulnerable Turkish economy, and the threat of more to come, Turkey is still resisting US pressure. All Ankara has to do is drop the charges against Brunson, so why is Ankara resisting so much? Why not find a face-saving measure and fall into line, just like Ankara did after tensions with Russia?
In an earlier post, I explained how Turkey and the US might overcome some of their differences. And if I can think of a way, I am sure the brilliant minds in Washington and Ankara can do better. I also wrote a post about the underlying symptoms for the breakdown of relations in which I factor Turkey’s internal security threats, Ankara’s delusions of grandeur and Turkey’s authoritarian turn. But there is an additional factor, namely, President Erdogan’s version of political Islam.
Faced with ongoing Magnitsky Act sanctions and high tariffs on aluminium and steel, as well as being excluded from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme after the passing of the 2019 defence spending bill, Turkey is experiencing a continued strain on its economy, an ongoing currency crisis and uncertainty about future military hardware. If President Erdogan truly cared about the Turkish economy, he would have appointed representatives from the business community to establish an economic advisory council, increased interest rates by guaranteeing the independence of the central bank, and, of course, immediately released American Pastor Andrew Brunson. Instead, Erdogan chose his son-in-law to be the country’s economy minister, maintained his position that high interest rates leads to inflation and pressured the central bank to reframe from raising rates. Not only did Erdogan not release Pastor Brunson, but he responded to US sanctions with some of his own, which practically amounts to a trade war against the biggest economy on Earth.
“They have their dollars but we have the Quran”, declared Erdogan, not just once but on countless occasions over the past couple of weeks. This is typical of religious fanatics everywhere; when they don’t have the answers, they double down on God. When asked about the dismal economic performance of the Islamic Republic of Iran, for example, Ayatollah Khomeini responded that, “the revolution was not about the price of watermelons”. Indeed, how can it be when Khomeini promised that Islam was the solution? This is why Erdogan continues to resist increasing interest rates which he has described as “evil”, no doubt a reflection of Islam’s abhorrence to usury. If it is not proscribed by God, it cannot be part of the answer.
Erdogan adds that there is no need to fear, the world is bigger than the United States. Never mind the fact that the US accounts for 25 per cent of the world’s economy, Turkey, Erdogan insists, can turn to other countries for economic support and arms purchases. Qatar and Russia, or, in the case of F-35s, Turkey’s own military aviation industry (ignoring that the TF-X project, for example, is currently dependent on the expertise and intellectual property of UK firms).
It appears that President Erdogan and his sycophantic band of advisors believe the hype about America’s demise and the rise of the rest. But unlike serious observers who write about America’s inwardly looking trajectory and the rise of China and other developing nations, President Erdogan and his cohorts seem to think the time is nigh. They appear to have missed that for the time being at least, the US is still the most powerful nation on earth, and that remains the case whether we are talking about hard power, soft power, smart power or any other kind of power.
President Erdogan once commented that there is no such thing as moderate Islam. His foreign policy reflects this. President Erdogan’s government continues to support Hamas. It sides with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and sponsors a range of Islamist militants in Syria. Erdogan himself earned his political stripes with the openly Islamist Welfare Party of the one-time Turkish Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan who was anti-western to the core and talked about forming an Islamic currency and uniting the Muslim world against US and Zionist conspiracies. Although Erbakan was ousted following a military intervention, his thinking inspired a generation of Turkish Islamists, and President Erdogan was his (wayward) protégé who is beginning to act more and more like his old mentor. “The attack on our economy has absolutely no difference from attacks on our call to prayer and our flag,” Erdogan recently stated, showing his inability to separate religion from economics and international relations. Just last March, Yeni Safak, a pro-Erdogan newspaper and government mouthpiece if ever there was one, talked about creating an Islamic army of millions of soldiers to fight Israel. Erdogan didn’t distance himself from the piece. It also reflect the apparent statements of King Abdullah II of Jordan who told US congressional leaders back in 2016 that the Turkish head of state believes in a “radical Islamic solution” to conflicts in the Middle East.
Erdogan sees himself as the head of a country that leads the Muslim world. The most recent example was when President Erdogan used Washington’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital as a means to speak on behalf of the Muslim world by convening a special emergency summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. Erdogan used this pulpit to lead the Muslim world’s condemnation of the Trump Administration in the most visceral terms imaginable.
In this context, how can it be possible for Erdogan to back down against Trump? It be a setback for Erdogan’s attempt to lead the Muslim world legitimized by Turkey's Ottoman past, Islamic credentials and the Turkish president’s ability to stand up to Israel and America. Of course, the losers will be Turkey’s long-suffering population who are seeing their money devalued, their savings hurt and their businesses on the brink. But they needn’t worry, they always have God.
In my last post, I wrote about the underlying reasons for the decline of US-Turkish relations. I identified three main factors and a related forth. In brief I made the following points: 1) Turkey needs to be understood as a weak or fragile state because its internal threats are more of a priority than its external enemies, 2) Turkey considers itself to be an international power in its own right, but finds it difficult to reconcile its image of greatness with the reality that it is a medium sized power, 3) increased authoritarian rule means that the government and especially President Erdogan cannot blame shift when matters arise between Turkey and another state, 4) Turkey is no longer part of the western camp in the same way that it was before the rise of the ruling AKP.
It is far easier to identify the causes of the breakdown in US-Turkey relations than it is to find solutions. Nevertheless, I am going to give it a try. I will focus on solving the bilateral tensions associated with the detention of Pastor Andrew Brunson and Turkey’s desire to purchase Russian S400s. There is a road map of sorts on the Manbij issue in northern Syria, so I will allow others to assess the efficacy of that arrangement, although I may mention it briefly.
But first, a question. With the exception of war or the threat of war, can you think of a case when a superpower power was able to make a smaller power do something which the smaller power considered detrimental to its national interest? This question was posed to me by one of my professors when I was an MA student. The answer is no. And if so, very rarely. If a country considers it against its national interest, there is little the stronger power can do. More often than not, the use or threat of force is inappropriate. Therefore, the trick is to convince the smaller power that it is in its national interest to comply with the policy of the more powerful state.
Recent reports have indicated that US and Turkish officials are in talks. The job of Washington’s officials is to convince Ankara that it is in Turkey’s national interest to release Pastor Brunson from house arrest as well as other US citizens and consular employees.
This is why the Magnitsky sanctions were a good start. Although symbolic, it demonstrated that Washington means business. Already the Turkish economy has taken a hit. The US must show that it is not going to back down, but even ready up the ante by highlighting that it is very serious about implementing additional sanctions. These new sanctions include those stipulated in the Turkey International Financial Institutions Act, which, if passed by Congress, would instruct the US directors of the World Bank International Finance Corporationand European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to vote against extending loans to Turkey. Also, the US should move ahead with legislation pertaining to the 2019 defence budget which would shut out Turkey’s involvement in the F35 Joint Strike Fighter programme. Collectively, these are incredible tools because they pertain to both Turkey’s economic and security interests.
But there are more tools at Washington’s disposal. First, the US should not rush into a deal, but wait until Ankara feels the looming pinch of the sanctions. Time is on Washington’s side. Second, the US should make it clear in no uncertain terms that President Trump is an unpredictable figure. And just as he recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, he could support Congressional attempts to recognise the Armenian massacres of World War I as a genocide. Thirdly, playing to the internal security threat in Turkey, the US could kindly point out that they might not accept Turkey’s position that the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria are related organisations (Washington currently insists that its support for Syrian Kurds is only through the SDF – an umbrella organisation dominated by the YPG). There are additional measures the US could take such as restricting Turkish participation in NATO operations and training exercises, reducing intelligence sharing, and taking measures against Turkey’s trade with Iran. However, I think these measures should be left off the table for now as they would do more harm than good.
The US should use the above as leverage to demand that Pastor Brunson and all other US citizens and consular officials are immediately released. But the White House can and should offer a few incentives to sweeten the deal. It could propose that it put in a word to the New York District Attorney and US court in order to allow Mehmet Hakan Atilla, an executive of the Turkish state owned Halkbank, who was found guilty of breaking the Iran Sanctions Act, to serve out the rest of his sentence in Turkey. Also, perhaps the Treasury could be convinced to slap Halkbank with just a medium sized fine – enough to deter other banks from violating Iranian sanctions, but not too high to hurt the Turkish economy.
As already mention, Turkey is a country where its internal security concerns are seen as more important than its external. Washington might want to play into this by offering to “look into” the activities of the Gulen movement in the US. Couched in vague terms, this will be enough for Ankara to be placated and able to publically save face, but not enough for the US to obligate itself. Also, to further sweeten the pill, Turkey could be offered an additional discount on Patriot missiles if it were to forgo the Russian S400 deal. Ankara would save billions of dollars on Russian hardware that has no compatibility with most of Turkey’s own equipment, let alone NATO’s.
Underlying all this is a message that Ankara needs to receive from Washington - it is in Turkey’s interests to be on good terms with the US and is most secure and economically prosperous when ties with the west are strong. Once this impasse is solved, the sides can move towards a transactional relationship, which, if played right, could be a harbinger of even closer ties in the future.
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.
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