Keeping Turkey in line

Sayed Abdel-Meguid , Saturday 28 Jul 2018

After months of Ankara and Washington heading to the brink of collision, some signs are emerging of a softening of positions on both sides

Tayyip Erdogan
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses his ruling Justice and Development Party MPs and supporters at the parliament in Ankara, Turkey, Tuesday, July 24, 2018 (Photo: AP)

Turkey is among the countries that most vehemently protest what pro-government media call the “Oval Office dictates” in connection with re-imposed US sanctions against Iran. It may have some logical reasons.

Unlike the ally across the Atlantic, Turkey is a neighbour of that “rogue state” with which it shares a 500-kilometre long border.

Secondly, Ankara has to meet some crucial daily needs for its economy and people.

Indeed, it had attempted to circumvent the sanctions obstacle before, ostensibly for this reason, and currently a Halkbank executive is serving out a 32-month sentence in the US in connection with a “sanctions evasion scheme” following a high-profile trial in New York slammed by Turkey’s pro-government media as a “farce”. Foremost among its needs from abroad is fuel.

Currently Turkey imports about half of its energy requirements from Iran, noted for the high quality of its crude, which comes with the additional advantages of proximity and preferential prices.

How could Ankara possibly bow to Washington’s dictates on this? It must remain firm and tell Trump a resounding “No,” according to President Erdogan’s opinion pundits.

Ankara’s relationship with the Trump administration has approached a brink and, until recently, there have been few signs of efforts to avert collision.

Much to Erdogan’s fury, Washington has not responded to his insistent demands to stop supporting the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) which the regime in Ankara has branded terrorist.

Nor has the US moved a step closer to extraditing the Islamist preacher Fathullah Gulen whom the Erdogan regime claims masterminded the coup attempt in mid-July 2016.

So, when a group of US experts arrived in Anatolia, the welcome was grim and, according to leaks, their talks with Turkish officials were tense. Tempers may have even flared as, apparently, the Turks dug in their heels and insisted on maintaining their cooperation with Iran.

Nevertheless, there have been two significant developments in this regard.

First, Trump has suggested that some countries might be exempted from the US’s rules on compliance with its anti-Iranian sanctions regime, so that they did not fall prey to the Kremlin.

Although not mentioned by name, it required little guesswork to deduce that Turkey, which had been drifting eastward for some time, was on the list of potential exemptions.

The Russian bear, for its part, has shown amazing flexibility in order to put past differences with the Erdogan regime behind it and bring it closer into its embrace.

According to Russian experts, the Kremlin has invested heavily in taking advantage of the growing fissure between the US and Turkey in the hope of precipitating the latter’s break from the Western security structure.

The second development is that Tupras, Turkey’s largest oil refiner, has begun to reduce its purchases of Iranian crude.

This process already began in May, just after Trump announced his decision to re-impose sanctions. In the first four months of 2018, Tupras had bought more than 187,000 barrels per day of Iranian oil.

In April alone, according to Reuters, Tupras imported eight cargoes — equivalent to just over 240,000 bpd. Turkish media has cited experts as saying that the state-owned company will probably reduce purchases further in the coming months.

Clearly this indicates that, contrary to his feisty bravado, Erdogan wants to avoid pushing tensions with the US too far at this stage and that this gesture may be a sign of a desire to smooth things out in that relationship.

At the same time, Turkish diplomatic circles realise that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis are disinclined to clash with Turkey over Iranian oil.

“It is difficult to imagine Turkey being able to end imports of Iranian hydrocarbon given the serious financial pain that would result,” wrote the academic and former US foreign service officer Edward G Stanford in a column for AhvalNews on 16 July.

However, he adds, the US would probably “adopt a tough approach, expecting much in return for not sanctioning Turkish companies or banks doing business with Iran”.

In fact, Trump has already signalled that this might be his approach. In his phone call to Ankara following last month’s elections, he did not congratulate Erdogan on his electoral victory and proceeded directly to issues related to the recent NATO conference.

The question of the continued detention of American pastor Andrew Brunson, described by US Security Adviser John Bolton as unfair treatment of a US citizen, is also likely to remain a problem.

On the other hand, it appears that some form of arrangement has been reached over Ankara’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system, which may take a long time to come through, if it comes through at all.

Of course, there remain perpetual differences over the Kurds. The US continues to insist on the distinction between the Turkish-based Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which it, like Turkey, labels terrorist, and the Syrian-based SDF and YPG, and the Iraqi-based Peshmerga, which it does not regard as terrorist.

Turkey rejects the distinction and lumps them all in one convenient basket. But who knows? Ankara might just discover some room for subtlety if Washington exempts it from compliance with Iranian sanctions.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 July 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Keeping Turkey in line

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