The extraordinary war of words this week between Washington and Ankara points to an ineluctable conclusion: the US has decided to get heavy with Turkey to bring it into line.
Two members of the US-led NATO military alliance threatening each other with sanctions is an untenable situation. But there’s much more to it than concerns solely over NATO – although given Turkey’s membership of the military bloc since 1952, that is a major concern alone.
Already, the ramped up pressure from Washington hitting the Turkish economy seems to have produced desired results. At the ASEAN summit in Singapore on Friday, Turkey’s foreign minister reportedly held a cordial meeting with American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, vowing to resolve their dispute through dialogue.
Pompeo had said US plans to impose sanctions on two senior Turkish government ministers were “a sign we’re serious.”
Initially, Ankara appeared to not be backing down, warning that it would respond with reciprocal measures against Washington.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, before heading to Singapore, said the use of “sanctions and threats by the US would not work.”
However, Ankara withheld counter-sanctions despite its bellicose rhetoric. As it turns out, Turkey’s top diplomat appeared to have a friendly meeting with American counterpart Pompeo at the ASEAN summit. In short, Turkey has blinked first in the face-off with Washington.
The immediate cause of the dispute seems to be over the fate of an American Christian pastor who has been detained in Turkey for nearly 21 months. Andrew Brunson, who has also lived in Turkey for two decades, is accused by the Turkish authorities of terrorist offenses in relation to the 2016 failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. There are several other Americans and US Embassy local staff who were arrested during the widespread crackdown by Erdogan against suspected coup supporters.
But it is the fate of pastor Brunson that sparked the war of words this week. Partly that is due to the personal involvement of US Vice President Mike Pence, who shares a similar evangelical Christian affiliation as the detained preacher.
The Trump administration appeared to have previously relied on low-key diplomatic contacts with Erdogan to secure the release of the pastor. Only three weeks ago, Trump was seen greeting Erdogan at the NATO summit in Brussels with chummy fist bumps and chit chat.
But the ongoing court trial of Brunson has piqued Washington that Erdogan is not going to play ball for an early release. Indeed, Ankara wants to link the case with that of Turkish Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen living in exile in the US. Erdogan’s supporters accuse Gulen of orchestrating the coup bid in 2016, and they want him extradited to face trial in Turkey. Washington has balked at any exchange deal, and insists the US preacher must be released immediately, along with other detained Americans.
The personal religious interests of Pence and others in the Trump administration may be part of the calculus for why Washington has got heavy this week with Ankara by imposing sanctions.
But there are other, more important strategic reasons behind the US’ muscle-flexing. Washington appears to have finally lost “strategic patience” with Erdogan, according to the influential Foreign Affairs journal. The US foreign policy establishment has decided that it is time to “take punitive economic action” on Ankara to bring its wayward president into line with Washington’s strategic interests.
“Both the Trump administration and Congress have exhausted their strategic patience; they are now postured to change their approach and take steps intended to inflict economic pain on a NATO ally [Turkey] of 66 years,” according to Foreign Affairs.
Central to those strategic US concerns are signs that Erdogan wants to reorient his country away from Washington’s sphere of influence and embrace a more independent foreign policy.
Two weeks ago, Erdogan said his country was considering joining the trading bloc known as the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). The Turkish president was warmly received by the other nations’ leaders while attending the 10th annual BRICS conference in Johannesburg. Another guest of honor at the summit was Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
There is also the ongoing sensitive issue of Turkey planning to buy Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft defense system. This has caused alarm in Washington because it claims the purchase of Russian defense technology undermines the “interoperability of NATO.” The US is also concerned that Turkey’s proposed installation of the S-400 would compromise the capability of the new-generation American fighter jet, the F-35. Washington has warned it will cancel F-35 sales to Turkey if it goes ahead with the S-400 deal.
Another strategic no-no was Turkey’s recent rebuff of Washington’s demands for sanctions on Iranian oil exports. As part of its hostile campaign towards Tehran, the Trump administration is calling for a global ban on Iranian oil purchases. It is not clear if Asian importers of Iranian crude will go along with such a demand which is set to come into force this November under a deadline set by the Trump administration.
Turkey, which is a major importer of Iranian oil, said it would not be complying with Washington’s dictate on ending its business dealings with Tehran.
We also need to add in the factor of President Erdogan recently making vociferous condemnation of Israeli violence against Palestinians. Erdogan has stridently denounced Israeli “state terrorism” over its brutal security measures against civilians in Gaza.
The Turkish leader’s combative comments have sharply undermined Trump’s policy of appeasing Israel with its controversial recognition of Jerusalem as the state capital. By adopting such an openly critical stance, Erdogan has fomented Arab anger across the region, which undercuts Washington’s plans for Israel, and in particular Trump’s recent proposal to set up a so-called Arab NATO coalition force. The “Arab NATO” force of Gulf states, plus Egypt and Jordan, is an instrumental part of what appears to be Washington’s gambit of isolating and destabilizing Iran. Or worse, war.
From Washington’s perspective, Turkey has crossed several red lines in terms of impeding strategic objectives. Erdogan is unraveling NATO’s hostile policy towards Russia by proposing to buy Russian air defense systems; he is also embracing a multipolar vision of global trade and diplomacy as set out by the BRICS, in particular by Russia’s Putin and China’s Xi. Undermining the Trump administration’s offensive designs on Iran has added to the list of unacceptable transgressions as viewed by Washington.
The recent spat over political prisoners involving the American pastor is merely the “moralistic cover” for the US to get heavy over what it sees as Turkey going rogue.
For multiple strategic imperatives, Washington cannot afford to let Turkey slip from its hegemonic grip. The US simply can’t go cold Turkey.
The question is, will Erdogan cave in to the pressure? The threat of US sanctions has plunged his country’s already troubled economy into a morass of pain, principally the loss of value in the Turkish currency and frightening away foreign investors.
The latest softening of rhetoric out of Ankara as seen at the ASEAN summit suggests that Washington will get its fix.