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Can the US-Turkey relationship survive Erdogan and Trump?

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[dropcap size=big]H[/dropcap]ow much disagreement, tension and even mutual hostility can an alliance relationship take? Having failed to release the evangelical American pastor Andrew Brunson from prison on 18 July 2018 during a court hearing, on 25 July Turkey put him under house arrest instead. Many in the US were surprised, not least because of the warm exchanges between US President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan witnessed at the NATO summit in mid-July. US Vice President Mike Pence greeted the news by tweeting ‘Release Pastor Andrew Brunson NOW or be prepared to face the consequences’. Trump himself followed up with a tweet of his own, threatening that ‘the US will impose large sanctions on Turkey for their long term detainment’ of Brunson. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu immediately warned that Turkey would not buckle in the face of such threats. As Brunson’s next hearing is not due until October, the coming weeks could be significant for US-Turkey relations. Brunson, who has lived in Turkey for over two decades, was imprisoned in October 2016 on what appear to be startlingly trumped-up charges of membership of a terrorist organisation – the Gulen network – espionage, and attempting to change Turkey’s constitutional order. He could face a prison sentence of up to 35 years. His first court hearing had to wait until May 2018. This alone is a remarkable way for a NATO ally to behave towards a national of its leading country. It is widely suspected that the Turkish authorities had hoped to use Brunson – and other mainly Turkish-origin US citizens held in Turkey – as a bargaining chip in their endeavour to extradite Fethullah Gulen from the US. If so, it suggests a profound misreading of how the US legal system and political processes work, even in the Trump era.


This crisis followed hot on the heels of a Congressional ban on the transfer of F-35 fighter aircraft, for which Turkish pilots are already undergoing training in the US and of which Turkey plans to purchase around one hundred. The ban is temporary, its lifting conditional on the Pentagon production of a report assessing the impact of a ban on US-Turkey relations, the impact of Turkey’s proposed acquisition of Russian-supplied S-40 anti-air missiles, and the ramifications for the US defence industrial base of Turkey’s exclusion from the programme. This last is important, given the involvement of a number of Turkish firms in the production of components for the aircraft. The primary prompt for the Congressional measure was Turkey’s S-400 deal. The missiles should begin arriving in Turkey in early 2020. Washington had already repeatedly warned Ankara that the S-400 is incompatible with NATO air defence systems, could lead to Turkey’s exclusion from NATO air defence arrangements in the future, and that Turkey’s deployment of the system could lead to Russia gaining access to NATO secrets. A Congressional proposal to limit financial loans to the troubled Turkish economy also made an appearance. Ankara has pushed back, arguing that it would be happy to purchase US Patriot air defence systems as a longer-term solution to its air defence needs, but that as yet they were not available to Turkey and that the US had in any case proven to be an unreliable source of armaments. The US and Germany had withdrawn Patriot systems from Turkish soil in 2015 against Ankara’s wishes, and Turkey has come to resent its arms dependence on its western allies, and the US above all. Ankara was also encouraged that the administration had requested that Congress desist from the F-35 decision.


These issues were in turn playing out against the backdrop of a looming potential crisis over the Trump administration’s unilateral decision to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement and tighten sanctions on the country. Turkey warned against this move, and declared that it did not feel obliged to implement the measures that Washington was demanding. Washington’s European allies are similarly unhappy with the US decision, so Turkey might not be so isolated on this issue, but its particular predicament is that Iran is its major single source of oil and a significant supplier of its gas imports. It was generally well known that Turkey had facilitated the breaking of the sanctions regime on Iran in the past, and to a degree Washington turned a blind eye. However, Turkey’s sanction-breaking activities culminated in a court case in the US in which Reza Zarrab, an Azeri Iranian close to Erdogan’s circles, and a state-owned Halkbank executive Mehmet Hakan Atilla, were tried for their involvement in a scheme that enabled Iran to evade the impact of the sanctions via a complicated ‘gas for gold’ exchange. Erdogan, along with some family members and business associates, were clearly implicated, and Halkbank may yet receive a hefty fine. Washington might be less tolerant of a second round of similar behaviour on Ankara’s part.


Then there is the most serious US-Turkish crisis of all, in Syria, where Turkey has taken umbrage at Washington’s backing for the multi-ethnic but predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the fight against IS in Syria. The SDF’s lead element are the People’s Protection Forces, or YPG (Yekineyen Parastina Gel), which Turkey believes with some justification is linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (or PKK). Turkey has pledged to militarily defeat the YPG in Syria, and in January 2018 sent forces into the Kurdish canton of Afrin. Moving against YPG forces further east, however, would risk direct clashes with the YPG and even US forces present in the area. This potential disaster has come to focus on the town of Manbij, which was freed from IS control by the SDF and US forces in 2016. In June of this year Turkey and the US began putting into effect an agreement to jointly patrol the area, and the YPG declared that it would withdraw its military advisors. How complete this withdrawal proves to be, and whether it would be sufficient to appease Turkey, has yet to be seen. The US relationship with the YPG grew out of the failure to identify credible alternative allies on the ground for its campaign against IS. Turkey, which initially prioritised Assad’s overthrow, soon switched its attention the YPG, and inside Turkey to the PKK. It has been far less forceful in its fight against IS, domestically or in Syria. Furthermore, the various factions of the Free Syrian Army that Ankara has sponsored and that has accompanied Turkish troops into Syria, are for the most part excessively militantly Islamic for US tastes, and feeds into a general feeling that Ankara has acquired an ideological affinity with Islamic radicalism.


Problems in the US-Turkey relationship are hardly new, and have frequently stemmed from differences in perspective on developments in Turkey’s neighbourhood. But today’s tensions do not resemble those of the past. Erdogan has no ideological counterpart in the history of the Turkish republic, except perhaps Necmettin Erbakan, who achieved nothing like Erdogan’s prominence or endurance. Erdogan is anti-western in rhetoric and philosophy, and is capable of holding the US as largely responsible for the failed July 2016 coup against him and of imagining all kinds of western conspiracies against him. He has little regard for diplomatic niceties, which led to a rupture in the relationship with the Netherlands and the withdrawal of German forces from the NATO base at Incirlik, and a visa crisis with the US over the arrest of Turkish employees the US Consulates in Turkey. He cares little for the rule of law abroad as well as at home, hence the sponsoring of hostile activities against his opponents on the territory of NATO and EU countries and the brutal behaviour of his own bodyguard against protestors in Washington during his May 2017 visit – behaviour replicated in South Africa as this piece was in preparation. Turkish officials have been engaged in intimidating and even abducting opponents – usually Gulenists – from various countries, most recently Mongolia. His attacks on Israel are vicious, and he has called for a ‘Muslim army’ to confront it. His Islamist rhetoric is incessant and at times extreme, and tainted both with anti-semitism and anti-Christian sentiment. The granting of EU accession candidate status in 2004 has crumbled into dust. The cautious, professional Turkish bureaucracy of yesteryore – in the Turkish General Staff and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in particular – have been largely by-passed or supplanted by Erdogan loyalists. Differences between Turkey and its western allies no longer take the form of run-of-the-mill disputes that routinely characterise relations between allies, but are rooted in profound differences of perspective and political culture.


Above all perhaps, in foreign policy his onslaughts against the west are in stark contrast to his cultivation of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whether through cooperation in Syria, the S-400 deal, the purchase of Russian-supplied nuclear power stations, or the comparatively muted criticism of Russian policy. Erdogan’s flirtation with prospective membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, consisting of Russia, China, India, Pakistan and four central Asian states, reflects Erdogan’s belief that western dominance is being replaced by a more multipolar global power structure, as does the recent invitation to Turkey by the BRICS countries – Russia, China India, Brazil and South Africa – to attend their July 2018 summit. The west’s problems with Erdogan go well beyond their discomfort with his autocratic rule.


The Obama administration tried hard to establish a close relationship with Erdogan’s Turkey, and eventually gave up in frustration. The irony of the current situation is that Trump shares some of Erdogan’s approach to diplomatic relationships – impulsive, belligerent, de-institutionalised, and apparently indifferent to the western global order or to consequences. He too is challenging the western alliance, as evidenced by his behaviour at the recent NATO summit and by his ‘trade war’. Trump also cultivates Putin, as their notorious recent meeting in Helsinki demonstrated. Trump’s championing of the Christian pastor Brunson reflects his reliance on the evangelical Christian vote in the US, and some would say mirrors Erdogan’s reliance on the religious vote in Turkey.  Above all, though, Trump is at least as unpredictable as Erdogan. If the mood took him, he could turn on Turkey with a vengeance, and right now he might feel that there are enough reasons for him to do so. If so, then he will give little regard for the consequences, and there is not much left of the cooperative entanglement of the bureaucracies of Washington or Ankara to be sure that these two states might be able to protect their relationship from the destructive impact of their respective leaders.



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