The United States and Turkey can’t stop squabbling over minor issues – and their enemies are profiting accordingly.
Iran is building an arc of influence to the Mediterranean Sea and has recently threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz. Bashar al Assad is mopping up the last pockets of opposition resistance – the opposition Turkey and the US supported in the hopes of bringing Assad down. Russia is hoping Assad and the YPG, the Syrian branch of the PKK, will reach a power-sharing agreement that will preserve the current scenario on Turkey’s southern border.
And yet, despite all this, there is no indication of a joint strategy to curb Iran’s ambitions, to destroy the Islamic State (Daesh), to weaken Assad, to discredit Russia’s intervention, or to find some basis for compromise on northern Syria.
Instead, the news of the week is that the US has imposed sanctions on a couple of Turkish ministers—ironically the justice minister sanctioned was not in charge at the time of the arrest—for detaining American pastor Andrew Brunson in December 2016, and that Turkey is preparing a retaliatory response.
From a purely interest-based perspective, this should not be happening. But politics can outweigh interests sometimes, and that’s what’s happening here.
From Turkey’s point of view, Washington’s actions are inexplicable. Turkey has charged Brunson with spying for the PKK, which both the US and Turkey consider a terrorist organization, and with aiding and abetting the Fetullah Terrorist Organization (FETO).
The US has said the charges are unfounded and that Brunson was simply “spreading his Christian faith.” The government in Ankara understandably believes US opinion is hardly a good enough reason to overturn judicial process.
For Turkey, sanctions are not a good-faith gesture of a partner that has respect for Turkish institutions. And comparing Turkey to Nicaragua, China, North Korea, Russia and Daesh—as US Vice President Mike Pence did in a speech on July 26—is downright insulting.
From the United States’ point of view, Turkey’s actions are equally baffling. First, Turkey wants the US to turn over Gulen for masterminding the failed military coup two years ago without providing enough quality evidence that Gulen is guilty. (Turkey of course has provided the US with large amounts of evidence – the problem is the US finds it unconvincing.)
Now, the US is equally unconvinced that an American pastor who has lived in Turkey for decades without any issue, was plotting to bring down the government. For Washington, this goes beyond disapproval of internal political developments inside Turkey. Detaining a US citizen in this manner is as confusing to the US as Turkey’s purchase of S-400 missiles from Russia. Like Turkey, the US feels it has been disrespected.
Which brings us to the current impasse. US President Donald Trump cannot afford to look weak on this. Brunson’s detainment is a major political issue for evangelical Christians in the United States – an important source of Trump’s support.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, too, can ill afford to look weak on this issue. The US has already embarrassed Erdogan by refusing to hand over Gulen and Erdogan has also embarrassed the US by bringing the Jerusalem issue to the UN.
President Erdogan, at least, is not about to turn over a man accused of espionage and terrorism to the US just because Washington says so.
The Brunson affair is just the latest in a series of small diplomatic incidents between the two NATO allies. But these incidents are merely symptoms of the deterioration of bilateral relations.
The underlying cause is the massive transformation that Turkey has undergone in the past decade. Turkey’s people have voted to overhaul the country’s governance structure. Turkish society is struggling to find a new balance between the new Turkey, and the old Turkey. And Turkey’s leaders are grappling with how best to use Turkey’s considerable economic and military power to pursue Turkish interests abroad.
Any one of these transformations by themselves would be enough to strain Turkey’s foreign relations. But together, they have upended the US-Turkey relationship.
Turkey’s government, not the Turkish military, is now the ultimate power in the state. Instead of military officials being the primary conduit for US-Turkish relations, politicians–who are accountable to their political bases of support have taken their place.
The most important change, however, is that Turkey no longer wants to be a junior partner of the United States. The US and Turkey may share interests, but Turkey isn’t merely Washington’s regional lackey.
Washington’s willingness to support the YPG against Daesh showed Turkey that the US doesn’t regard Turkish interests as highly as Ankara would like. Thirty years ago, when the Soviet Union was still strong and when Turkey’s economy was a shadow of what it is today, Ankara might have had no choice but to swallow its pride and simply do Washington’s bidding. But that was then and this is now, and Turkey doubts the US has its bests interests in mind. Everything else that is happening now goes back to that key breakpoint – when the US threw its weight behind the YPG.
At the broadest level, there is still a basis for the US-Turkish partnership to not only continue, but to improve. For that to happen, though, both sides have to compromise, and if the Brunson affair is any indication, those compromises may have become too politically costly for both presidents.
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