Turkey-US détente over

Karam Said, Saturday 4 May 2024

Developments in Turkish-American relations have taken a negative turn.

Turkey-US d tente over

 

Last weekend (Saturday, 26 April), the Turkish authorities announced that a meeting between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his US counterpart scheduled for 9 May had been postponed indefinitely. Some reports suggested that the cancellation was initiated by the US, citing US National Security Coordinator John Kirby as saying: “There’s nothing on the schedule to speak to in terms of a specific visit by President Erdogan.”

The postponement seems to punctuate the end of the brief respite in bilateral tensions that began in late January when the Turkish parliament voted in favour of Sweden’s accession to NATO. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the US ambassador to Ankara, and other US officials released statements praising the vote which came after months of Erdogan’s attempts to leverage approval of Sweden’s accession for various political ends.

The bilateral relationship improved further when Turkey yielded to US pressures to join the Western powers’ sanctions drive against Russia. In February, Ankara closed the accounts of Russian companies in Turkish banks on the grounds that they are using Turkey as a transit jurisdiction for payments and deliveries outside Russia. Russian oil and gas traders, in particular, have reportedly used this means to circumvent Western sanctions on the Russian petroleum sector. According to some reports, Turkish banks are also tightening restrictions on Russian citizens.

Washington appeared ready to show its appreciation in a tangible way. In February, Congress approved the sale of a package of F-16 fighter jets and modernisation kits to Turkey. The $23 billion sale had been held up for months over various issues, including Ankara’s foot-dragging on its approval of Sweden’s NATO membership. The US has also shown an interest in enhancing defence cooperation with Turkey, as reflected in the US-Turkey Strategic Mechanism held on 7-8 March and attended by Blinken and his Turkish counterpart, Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan.

What might account for the decision to indefinitely postpone Erdogan’s visit to the US?

The Turkish announcement of the cancellation of the scheduled trip followed shortly on the heels of the US Congress’ approval of $26 billion in military aid to Israel. This comes on top of a succession of one-sided positions from the Biden administration, such as the demand that Hamas release the Israeli hostages without linking this to a ceasefire. That the enormous military aid package that Biden signed into law last week contains no provisions on how US-made arms has been widely interpreted as a blank check for the Israel campaign of genocide in Gaza.

Ongoing US support of the Kurdish groups in northeastern Syria, such as the People’s Protection Units (YPG) which is a main component of the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), has long been a source of acrimony between Ankara and Washington, and is therefore likely to be instrumental in the latest spike of tensions.

Turkey regards the YPG and SDF as extensions of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which it designates as a terrorist organisation. Turkey recently signed an agreement with Baghdad providing military and security cooperation against “PKK elements” in Iraq and Syria. The agreement has stirred concern in Washington which sees the SDF as a strategic ally in the fight against terrorism in Syria.

Nevertheless, given the timing, Washington’s positions on the war in Gaza are most likely the main cause, in the opinion of some analysts. Signs of renewed friction between Ankara and Washington were evident when President Erdogan met with Hamas Political Bureau Chief Ismail Haniyeh in Istanbul on 20 April.

The meeting angered many quarters in Washington and was viewed with concern by Biden’s electoral campaign staff who feared that pro-Israel and pro-Trump campaigners would exploit a Biden-Erdogan meeting to portray Biden as friendly with Israel’s adversaries. The Biden campaign managers may therefore have pressured the administration into postponing Erdogan’s scheduled visit.

Certainly, Ankara’s frequent and vehement criticism of Israel’s conduct of the war on Gaza, including Erdogan’s remark that it may constitute genocide, has done little to win hearts among the pro-Israel fanatics in Washington. More recently, on 9 April, Turkey suspended the export of over fifty products to Israel until it agreed to a ceasefire, a step that contrasts starkly with Washington’s policy on ceasefire efforts.

Ankara’s support for another Freedom Flotilla may have been akin to a last straw. The Freedom Flotilla, which is organised by a coalition that includes the IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation, a Turkish NGO, along with humanitarian activist groups from 12 countries, had planned to set sail last weekend to break the “starvation siege” on Gaza.

However, on 25 April, 29 congresspersons signed a letter calling on Biden to exert pressure on Turkey to stop the flotilla from sailing, ostensibly to avert fuelling tensions in the region. Reports on Saturday that the ships, which have already been loaded with an estimated 5,500 tons of desperately needed relief, have effectively been blocked from sailing because  Guineau_Bissau suddenly withdrew permission for the use of its vessels.

However, as has long been the case when tensions escalate between the two countries, they remain well short of the breaking point. The US is too crucial to Turkey’s economic and security interests and Turkey is pivotal to both the US and NATO strategic interests.

The latter factor is of particular importance at this point in view of the significant advances Russian forces have been making along most of the front in Ukraine since the fall of the key Ukrainian bastion, Avdiivka, in mid-February. Against that backdrop, Washington will be looking to Ankara as an instrument to counter Russian influence from the Black Sea and the Caucasus to Syria and Libya.

The economic factor is also important. Because of its difficult economic circumstances, as evidenced in the sharply escalating inflation and unemployment rates and slackening foreign direct investment (FDI), Ankara is eager to develop its economic partnership with Washington, by increasing the volume of trade and facilitating Turkish exports to the US.

Turkey also depends on the US for around 38 per cent of its liquefied gas imports. Meanwhile, the US has significant direct investment in Turkey, amounting to around $14.4 billion by the end of 2022, which is an indicator of that country’s economic importance to the US as a regional production and services hub for American firms.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 2 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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