Where is the U.S.-Turkey crisis headed?

As Trump and Erdogan dig in, the chances that the two countries can return to a stable relationship is shrinking.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attends the opening session of the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) at Le Bourget, near Paris (photo credit: REUTERS)
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attends the opening session of the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) at Le Bourget, near Paris
(photo credit: REUTERS)
‘Turkey buying the Russian S-400 missile defense system would threaten the security of our F-35 aircraft and let Putin collect critical intelligence on us. We must pass my provision in the defense bill this week to block the F-35 delivery until Turkey ends its deal with Russia,” wrote US Sen. Chris Van Hollen on Wednesday.
His comments came a day after US National Security Adviser John Bolton, visiting Jerusalem, said that Ankara made a “big mistake” by not releasing US Pastor Andrew Brunson. “Every day that goes by, that mistake continues. This crisis could be over instantly if they did the right thing as a NATO ally, part of the West, and release pastor Brunson without condition.”
In Turkey the comments by Bolton were met with anger. Ibrahim Kalin, spokesman and adviser to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said that Turkey’s judicial independence was being challenged by Washington.
“There is a rule of law in Turkey, and the Andrew Brunson case is a legal issue. There is an ongoing legal process related to this individual,” Kalin said.
Turkey and the US face their greatest diplomatic crisis in recent memory as both countries engage in a war of words that has also harmed the Turkish economy. Five years ago $1 was worth two lira. Now you can get six lira for the same dollar. In the last month the lira lost almost a quarter of its value against the dollar.
This has caused a crisis in Turkey, in which Qatar has now pledged $15 billion to support the Turkish economy, further tying Ankara and Doha together. It has also caused Turkey to strengthen its ties to Moscow. Over the last three years Turkey has increasingly grown closer to Moscow, Qatar and Iran on a variety of issues. But Ankara had hoped briefly that Donald Trump’s election in October 2016 would bring warmer relations.
The view from Ankara is that the US has been working with allies of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) in Syria. The PKK’s Syrian affiliate is named the People’s Protection Units (YPG). The YPG has been the main force fighting ISIS in Syria since 2014, and the US helped the YPG push ISIS back from Kobani in 2015 and then began to work closely with the YPG in its rebranded form as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF liberated Raqqa last year, and the US is increasing its footprint in Syria, sending new special envoys and diplomatic staff, as well as securing hundreds of millions in assistance for stabilization from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
TURKEY’S CONDUIT to Trump’s White House was supposed to be Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser. According to the BBC Ankara asked for Flynn’s help in getting a cleric named Fethullah Gulen deported from the US back to Turkey, where he faced charges connected to the 2016 coup attempt. But Flynn was fired by Trump and got snared in the Russia collusion investigation of Robert Mueller.
Erdogan flew to Washington in May 2017 to meet Trump. But the visit turned sour when Turkish security personnel were filmed beating up protesters next to the Turkish Embassy in an embarrassing and unprecedented incident. Things went downhill slowly from there.
Turkish officials repeatedly warned that Turkish forces and their Syrian rebel allies wanted to move on Manbij in northern Syria, a town held by the SDF east of the Euphrates. Instead, in January 2018, Turkey and its Syrian rebels invaded Afrin in northwestern Syria, a small Kurdish canton held by the YPG. This angered the SDF, which shifted forces from fighting ISIS and warned the Americans that they shouldn’t abandon their friends in Syria. After Turkey took Afrin in March 2018, it set its sights again on Manbij.
In June 2018 Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew to Ankara and worked up a “road map” on Manbij with Ankara. There would be independent patrols around the town, with Turkish and US troops coordinating. These were supposed to lead to “joint patrols,” but in August Secretary of Defense James Mattis said there were more details to be ironed out.
The problems in Manbij were playing out against the larger dispute between Ankara and Washington. The pawn in this dispute became Brunson, who had been arrested in Turkey and accused of being connected to the coup plot.
“A fine gentleman and Christian leader in the United States is on trial and being persecuted in Turkey for no reason,” Trump tweeted on April 17. “A total disgrace that Turkey will not release respected US Pastor,” he tweeted again on July 18.
According to a report on Ynet, Trump’s team sought out a deal with Ankara where Israel would release a Turkish woman detained for ties to Hamas, in exchange for Brunson. She was released and flew back to Turkey on July 15. But although Brunson was let out to house arrest on July 25, he wasn’t released. Trump, apparently feeling betrayed, announced a doubling of tariffs on steel and aluminum on August 10.
Since then the Turkish economy has been damaged. Average Turks have taken to the Internet to express anger, bashing iPhones, cutting up dollars and encouraging Muslims around the world to support the lira as a form of religious support for Turkey. This is part of the current mood in Ankara that is increasingly one that views the world through the lens of political Islam.
But at the same time that Turkey asserts that the charges against Brunson are just an “independent” judicial issue, a report on The Wall Street Journal website claimed on August 20 that Ankara had proposed freeing the pastor in exchange for the end of a US investigation into a Turkish bank. Probably the story is more complex than that. Turkey also wants Gulen deported. The fact that two “deals” regarding Brunson were reportedly in the works seems to indicate that the story of “judicial independence” is not entirely rock solid. Turkey is willing to negotiate. That calls into question what exact evidence there is regarding Brunson.
The Trump administration has made Brunson the centerpiece of its policy, as opposed to discussing wider issues such as why Turkey is buying the S-400 from Russia and Turkey’s role in Syria.
US media have begun to discuss whether the NATO alliance with Turkey is beneficial. “Time for Turkey and NATO to go their separate ways,” reads a piece in The Washington Post. Another piece at Foreign Policy says “Trump is the first president to get Turkey right.” The rift was already there, says The National Interest. Indeed, the rift has been growing for more than a decade since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, when Turkey rejected a proposal to base US troops on its soil.
The problem with the Trump administration’s crackdown on Turkey relations is that it could be reversed easily if the pastor is released. It could also change dramatically when Trump leaves office, as the next US administration will seek to do the opposite of everything Trump did.
In US foreign policy circles, there is a vibrant pro-Turkey lobby that argues for “engagement” with Ankara, that worries that any pressure from the US will result in Turkey’s growing embrace of Iran and Russia. It sees the SDF as a temporary ally, a group that was convenient when fighting ISIS but which can be quietly abandoned in the next few years, as Washington maneuvers back to Ankara, which is seen as a 70-year ally since the start of the Cold War.
These voices ignore Turkey’s own agency and independent policy. They don’t see Turkey as a full-fledged country making its own choices. They see it as only reacting to whatever the US is doing.
But Turkey’s crackdown on the press and frequent outbursts in Ankara harshly slamming various European countries or the US are not just reactions; they represent a growing Turkish national wand religious consensus.
Trump could make a deal, but the long-term relationship will likely remain unstable.