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Analysis: Turkey and the Democrats

What is the future of Ankara’s increasingly fraught relations with Washington

Sayed Abdel-Meguid , Thursday 11 Feb 2021
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In his first press conference since taking his post in Ankara over a year and a half ago, US Ambassador David Satterfield dismissed Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu’s “unfounded” allegations that the US had masterminded the July 2016 coup attempt. “They’re not responsible statements from an ally and a strategic partner. And we regret them,” he said, proceeding with an assessment of US-Turkish relations.

“We hope that the issue of S-400 can be resolved. But if it cannot be, we will continue to focus on all the areas of our cooperation that are not directly affected by the sanctions which we put into place,” he said, making it clear that Washington had no intention of reversing the action that the Trump administration had taken on 14 December. He explained that the sanctions were an implementation of US law - specifically, the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) - and that the only way they could be lifted would be for Ankara to give up the Russian made S-400 defence system which Washington maintains is incompatible with its F-35 fighter jet programme and NATO defence systems in general.

In what observers described as a stinging rebuke to Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, what is more, Satterfield stated that his country was not planning to create a working group with Ankara to resolve the dispute over Turkey’s acquisition of the S400s.

Cavusoglu had previously claimed that the White House had proposed forming such a group to discuss the technical details pertaining to missiles that Turkey has already deployed and tested. The ambassador then turned to a subject guaranteed to hit a nerve in the presidential palace in Ankara: The Kurds, who have been fighting IS in northeastern Syria. “US policy has not changed. We will keep working together with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF),” he said, referring to the predominantly Kurdish force that Ankara insists is part of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Nor did Satterfield ignore Turkish domestic issues of concern to the US, especially those affecting economic relations between the two countries. The Turkish economy “needs an accountable, transparent and foreseeable monetary policy,” he said. “We believe that these characteristics are very important both for international markets and the Turkish economy.” He also reiterated US State Department spokesperson Ned Price’s condemnation of the anti-LGBT+ hate speech which Turkish officials have been using as one of the state’s weapons against the Boğaziçi University protestors.

“Neither in Turkey, nor in the world, should such language of hatred have a place,” he said. The protests, which began on 4 January, were sparked by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s appointment of a ruling party affiliate, Melih Bulu, as the university rector. The protests against encroachment on the university’s autonomy and academic freedoms have been gathering support at other universities and academic circles in Turkey and abroad. 

Satterfield may as well have said it outright: The atmosphere between Ankara and Washington is grim. “Put simply, the Turkish government views the United States as a strategic threat rather than an ally, and a growing majority in Washington have come to view Turkey the same way,” writes Nicholas Danforth in a report for the Brookings Institute portions that has been cited in Turkish opposition media. If some in Ankara had pinned their hopes on “turning a page” in bilateral relations after Biden was sworn in, it did not help that Erdogan’s cronies and supporters had long since lined up to take potshots at the man who would become the US’s 46th president.

Cavusoglu was among the first in line. In a press statement following a meeting with his US counterpart, Mike Pompeo, in the Dominican Republic in August last year, he said he believed that, when Biden was vice president under president Obama, “they had dealings with terrorist elements” and that Biden was probably among those behind the July 2016 coup attempt against Erdogan.

At the time Pompeo must have reassured Cavusoglu that Trump would win a second term. Presidential Spokesman and Advisor Ibrahim Kalin, former minister of European Affairs Ömer Çelik, and the man in charge of media and communications in the presidency Fahrettin Altun were similarly confident when they said Biden would “pay for” his remarks that Erdogan was an “autocrat” and that the US should support Turkish opposition leaders “to be able to take on and defeat Erdogan. Not by a coup, but by the electoral process.”   

But Biden made it through and, as Danforth put it, there began “yet another chapter in a deeply dysfunctional US-Turkey relationship”. Officials in Ankara were left hanging for days as Biden, his Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Secretary of State Lloyd Austin contacted their counterparts everywhere in the world except Turkey. Increasingly worried by how far down their country was on the waiting list, they decided to make the first move. Kalin was charged with contacting US national security advisor Jake Sullivan.

Their exploratory talks covered a number of issues, such as Syria, Libya, the Eastern Mediterranean, Cyprus, and Nagorno-Karabakh, perhaps to identify which might be most likely to trigger tensions between the two sides in the near future. As the Arabic edition of the Ahval news site observed on 3 February, “Biden does not seem inclined to clash with Ankara over existing differences on such questions as the Russian S-400 deal, Syria, Turkish intervention in Libya, and Ankara’s violations in the Eastern Mediterranean, but he will also not be soft in the face of Turkish persistence, according to the assessments of international observers following the developments of the crisis in bilateral relations.”

That said, it is worth noting that two days after his conversation with Kalin, in a phone call with Bjoern Seibert, who heads the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s cabinet, Jake Sullivan placed Turkey in the same category as China. This came soon after Blinken, during his Senate confirmation hearing, described Turkey as “an ally that in many ways... is not acting as an ally and this is a very, very significant challenge for us and we’re very clear-eyed about it.”  

Under Biden, “US policy toward Turkey will almost certainly continue its gradual shift from cooperation toward containment,” Danforth observed in the aforementioned report. He argues that Washington should not expect a durable “reset” in its relations with Turkey. “The fundamental assumptions of Turkish foreign policy thinking ensure that both countries will continue to work at cross purposes and face future crises,” he writes, proposing that the US should focus on building a kind of coalition based around NATO, the EU and US partners in the Middle East. If need be, they can “push back against Turkey’s adventurism.”

When we add to this the fact that EU leaders had deferred imposing sanctions on Turkey until Biden was settled in Oval Office, we can expect that Turkey will soon find itself facing pressures of a magnitude unparalleled since its invasion of northern Cyprus in 1974. Is there a light at the end of the tunnel, though?

Ilhan Tanir, a Washington-based Turkish journalist who covers Turkish-US relations, believes that Michael Carpenter, the managing director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy & Global Engagement, has suggested the path forward. In her article for Ahval, Tanir quotes Carpenter as saying that Turkey and its allies need “frank conversations to set right the bilateral and multilateral relations”. But Carter also held that NATO member states should present a “united front”, which may persuade Erdoğan “that there is room for cooperation, but there are also very negative consequences to pursuing a more aggressive policy.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 February , 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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