Iran and North Korea may top incoming Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s to-do list, but a festering problem with a key NATO ally may prove just as hard to solve. Turkey and the U.S. appear to sharply diverge on a host of fronts, including Turkey’s war against U.S.-allied Kurds in the Middle East and Ankara’s recent purchase of an advanced Russian missile system.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has proved a worthy match for President Trump in frank and sometimes confrontational rhetoric. At one point, he all but threatened to fire on U.S. troops if they got in the way of Turkish military operations clearing out Kurdish positions in northern Syria.
Mr. Pompeo is expected to take a harder line than Rex W. Tillerson did toward Mr. Erdogan and may seize on a moment of bipartisan support from U.S. lawmakers to draw a line in the sand over Turkey’s increasing closeness to Moscow.
One of Mr. Tillerson’s last diplomatic missions before his dismissal this month was a hastily arranged trip to Ankara in mid-February to try to soothe the waters.
“We worked with Tillerson at a point in which our ties came to a critical stage,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters when news broke of Mr. Tillerson’s firing. “We continued our communication even in the most difficult times.”
That may be about to change.
“What we saw from Tillerson was really not a very tough position,” said Jonathan Schanzer, a senior vice president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington.
Mr. Pompeo, who made his first acknowledged foreign trip to Turkey after he was confirmed as CIA director last year, “is a bit less afraid to throw an elbow here or there, and I think he’s in line with some of the people at the White House who are maybe a little less trusting or running out of patience with Turkey.”
Ties have been so strained that Mr. Trump and Mr. Erdogan spoke by phone directly last week. The readout from the call on both sides was noticeably terse and uninformative.
The two men “exchanged views on regional developments” but revealed no progress on their clashing agendas for Syria and Kurds.
It’s not just the White House that is growing impatient. Democrats and some Republicans on Capitol Hill have been arguing for months that Turkey’s aggressive policies along its borders and its purchase this fall of an S-400 missile system from a Russian company under sanctions by Washington were not the actions of a country that is supposed to be a trusted friend.
“Turkey is an important NATO member and a critical U.S. ally, but President Erdogan’s approach to the Kremlin has been disturbing to me and many of my bipartisan colleagues for some time now,” Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, a senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told The Washington Times.
Mr. Cardin and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, Arizona Republican, penned a joint letter in September calling on the Trump administration to consider whether Turkey’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 violated U.S. sanctions that the president signed in August.
The two lawmakers stopped short of calling for sanctions against Turkey, but they warned that Mr. Erdogan might be seeking to evade the reach of existing sanctions and called on Mr. Trump to “demonstrate from the highest levels that any effort to undermine U.S. sanctions will not be tolerated.”
Some on Capitol Hill would take a harder line against Turkey for an entirely different reason: Ankara’s arrests and dubious charging of U.S. citizens over the past year.
Turkish courts last year sentenced dual Turkish-American citizen and NASA engineer Serkan Golge to more than seven years in prison for his supposed involvement in the July 2016 coup attempt against Mr. Erdogan. American officials have dismissed the charge as outrageous and contrived.
American pastor Andrew Brunson last week was charged with espionage and having links to terrorist groups. According to Turkish prosecutors, Mr. Brunson worked with U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, a onetime ally and now a bitter rival of Mr. Erdogan, to overthrow the Turkish government and assisted the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.
The crackdown on Americans so outraged Sen. James Lankford, Oklahoma Republican, that he called in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last month for the White House to consider leveling targeted sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act against certain Turks.
Magnitsky sanctions allow U.S. officials to impose visa bans and sanctions on individuals for committing human rights abuses or engaging in significant corruption.
“There are many nations around the world where such behavior is commonplace, such as Cuba and Iran,” Mr. Lankford wrote. “But the recent level of thuggishness is unprecedented for an ally in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.”
Turks are quick to note that mistrust in the bilateral relationship cuts both ways, stretching back to America’s many post-9/11 Middle Eastern policy difficulties and what they say is the failure of the U.S. government to appreciate the strains those problems have caused for Ankara.
Purchasing the Russian missile systems was in part a means of diversifying their defense sourcing options and preserving relations with powers in the region where Turkey is based.
The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Turkey argues, created a colossal breeding ground for terrorists, a security risk exacerbated by the U.S. troop withdrawal under President Obama, which created a massive power vacuum filled by Islamic State and other terrorist groups. Russia and a resurgent Iran took advantage of the chaos to assert their military might in the region.
The rise of Islamic State, coupled with the Syrian civil war, created the region’s worst refugee crisis since World War II with Turkey at ground zero. Estimates show that almost 3 million Syrian refugees live in Turkey, the largest community of Syrians displaced by the conflict.
“Turkey is quite aware that the U.S. pursues its own interests and these interests do not always coincide with Turkey’s interests, especially in security issues,” Helin Sari, assistant professor of International Relations at Istanbul’s Medeniyet University, said in an interview.
Fearing another power vacuum in light of Islamic State’s recent battlefield defeats, the Turkish military has aggressively defended its borders — despite the added strain this has put on Western diplomacy and the NATO relationship.
This week, the U.S.-backed government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced it was ordering the military to take full control of the country’s borders amid escalating threats from Mr. Erdogan of an incursion to confront Kurdish groups operating inside Iraq.
Mr. Erdogan has stoked Turkish fires of rising anti-Americanism to justify buying Russian weapons to diversify defenses.
“If the U.S. puts sanctions in practice, it would simply increase that nationalist mood in Turkey and strengthen the government’s thesis against the West,” Ms. Sari said. “Then Turkey would definitely move closer to Russia and Iran, which in fact would not suit American interests.”
Mr. Erdogan has also lashed out at the Trump administration for its decision to continue the Obama administration’s alliance with ethnic Kurdish fighters in the battle against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, saying NATO powers were ignoring Turkey’s legitimate security concerns.
“The terrorist corridor that is being set up all along our border has but one target, and that is Turkey’s territorial integrity,” Mr. Erdogan told the Turkish parliament this month.
Addressing the U.S. and other leading NATO powers, he said, “You were supposed to be our friends. What kind of friendship is this? You were supposed to be our allies; we’re supposed to be together in NATO.”
Turkey this week pointedly declined to join the U.S. and a slew of other NATO powers in imposing diplomatic sanctions against the Kremlin, which is accused of orchestrating the nerve gas attack that targeted a former Russian spy and his daughter living in England. Mr. Erdogan condemned the attack, but the government said it needed to see proof of Moscow’s guilt.
“Just because some countries took a step based on an allegation, we don’t have to [decide to] take the same step,” Mr. Erdogan told the Hurriyet newspaper.
Democracy, beers and Islam
Mr. Pompeo, who is leaving the CIA to take over the State Department, will likely bring a different perspective to the bilateral relationship than did Mr. Tillerson.
Turkish media quickly resurrected a deleted tweet from Mr. Pompeo while he was a Republican congressman from Kansas after the failed 2016 coup. In the tweet, Mr. Pompeo referred to the Erdogan government as a “totalitarian Islamist dictatorship.”
“I went out for beers with [Mr. Pompeo] when he was a congressman,” Mr. Schanzer said. “Let’s just say he’s no fan of the ‘Islamist light’ coalition.”
Once hailed as a “poster child for Muslim democracy” and Turkish civil society, Mr. Erdogan has faced increasing criticism at home and from international rights groups for what they say is a growing authoritarian streak and an intolerance of dissent.
But it is unlikely that the next secretary of state will push for sanctions against Turkey because that would appear to go “nuclear” against a NATO ally, Mr. Schanzer said.
A more simple approach could be using a major bargaining chip: shifting U.S. military assets away from Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base, long a cornerstone of the bilateral relationship.
“If we’re redistributing assets and we’re downgrading our position in that air base,” Mr. Schanzer said, “that is a significant signal to send.”
James F. Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and Iraq and now a fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Russian arms purchases and crackdowns on Americans have understandably created concern in Washington but “sanctioning a NATO ally is a crazy idea.”
Mr. Jeffrey said the Turkish purchase of the Russian system comes with problems — most notably that it is not compatible with NATO defense systems and is useless in a crisis — but the reality is that “there is no NATO rule that says you can’t buy Russian weapons.”
“Sovereign countries do not let the parliaments of other countries dictate their country’s national security decisions,” he said.
At the same time, Mr. Jeffrey said, Turkey does not want to fall into a Russian sphere of influence and is considered one of the “best customers” of U.S. weaponry on the international arms market.
“If you sanction them, you will destroy the relationship,” he said. “If they can’t buy our weapons, who will they buy them from?”
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