U.S.-Turkey ties remain fragile despite apparent resumption of relations

Major sticking points include Washington's support for Kurdish troops in Syria and its refusal to extradite Erdogan foe Fethullah Gulen.

US President Donald Trump alongside Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (photo credit: REUTERS)
US President Donald Trump alongside Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Major problems continue to strain the United States' relationship with Turkey despite a recent rapprochement, analysts told The Media Line. Ankara has announced that it is working with Washington to maintain economic cooperation and persuade Congress to abandon legislation that would harm Turkey, following two weeks of signs that bilateral ties are rebounding from a summer crisis.
“I think the relationship is still on a knife’s edge for a lot of reasons...[and] I don’t feel we are out of the woods,” cautioned Alan Makovsky, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress who previously dealt with Turkish affairs at the U.S. State Department.
A diplomatic row was sparked earlier this year over Turkey's detention of US pastor Andrew Brunson, which exacerbated existing tensions over Washington's coordination with Kurdish forces in Syria and refusal to extradite cleric Fethullah Gulen, who Ankara blames for a failed coup in 2016.
However, the sides have taken steps to mend fences since Brunson's release in October, including beginning joint patrols in Manbij, Syria geared towards preventing clashes between Turkish troops and the US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces, which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan views as an extension of the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK.
Washington also removed sanctions on Turkish officials, a move responded to in kind by Ankara. Days later, the Trump administration issued Turkey a waiver to continue purchasing oil from Iran despite the re-imposition of American financial penalties on the Islamic Republic. According to Turkey’s energy minister, the waiver allows Ankara to import 3 million tons of Iranian oil per year, which is crucial given the country's lack of domestic energy resources.
Nevertheless, Erdogan is still calling on the US to stop working with Kurdish fighters in Syria, primarily the YPG, which Turkish forces shelled last month, forcing a stoppage in the fight against Islamic State.
Political commentator with the pro-government Sabah newspaper, Hilary Kaplan, told The Media Line that the recent developments therefore amount only to “slow progress” and that Turkish officials want to see “action.”
“Turkey is very cautious towards promises made by the US,” she said.
Kaplan stressed that Washington cannot work with both the YPG and the Turkish military "even in the short term [and] that’s why the US should make a clear choice.”
To this end, she highlighted that Turkey’s agreement with Russia to create a demilitarized zone in the Syrian opposition stronghold of Idlib, which stopped an imminent regime attack, shows that Erdogan can achieve results and is thus essential to forging a lasting political solution to the conflict.
By contrast, former U.S. ambassador to Turkey W. Robert Pearson contended to The Media Line that Ankara's series of demands “are diminishing rapidly the value of the concessions” from the Trump administration. Pearson does not believe that Erdogan is reacting appropriately to positive U.S. overtures, which is damaging the prospect of improved bilateral relations.
The former ambassador suggested that Turkey's firm positions are partly attributable to the perception that Erdogan folded to American pressure by releasing Brunson.
For its part, Ankara insists that its judiciary is independent and does not make politically-motivated decisions.
Turkey’s geographical location makes it both strategically valuable and vulnerable, bordering Iraq and Syria and hosting an air base used by the U.S. to launch strikes against ISIS.
“Turkey will never leave NATO. It is a point of enormous prestige and has enormous benefits,” Pearson predicted.
“My impression is that President Trump likes Turkey and likes Erdogan,” the Center for American Progress' Makovsky added.
While the most acute threat to the U.S.-Turkey relationship is the Kurdish issue, Ankara’s purchase of a Russian-made missile defense system, reportedly worth $2.5 billion and slated for delivery in 2020, remains a major concern.
“I think Erdogan clearly wants to move as much as possible to a multi-dimensional foreign policy where he has ties with all kinds of countries that may not be to NATO’s liking,” Pearson concluded.
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