A few weeks ago, Ankara relented and finally released U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson who had been detained for almost two years on flimsy charges. Following on, both countries lifted mutually imposed sanctions and resumed coordinating security cooperation in the Syrian city of Manbij. The handling of Turkey represents a significant victory for the Trump administration in its bilateral relations with a wayward ally.
The Izmir-based Pastor Brunson, who had lived in Turkey for over 20 years, was arrested on trumped up charges of colluding with terrorists including the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Gulen Movement, followers of Fetullah Gulen, a U.S. resident accused by Ankara of orchestrating the July 2016 attempted coup.
In what some pundits correctly termed "hostage diplomacy," Turkey, increasingly under the centralised and authoritarian control of its firebrand President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, demanded that the U.S. extradite Fetullah Gulen to Turkey.
Frustrated by the American judicial system, which seeks solid evidence and due process for extradition requests, Turkish President Erdogan remarked that the U.S. and Turkey should exchange pastor for preacher. The offer did not sit well in Washington.
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Already relations between Washington and Ankara were deteriorating over the issue of U.S. support for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militias fighting ISIS in Syria. Ankara claims that the group is affiliated to the outlawed PKK, which the Turkish state has been battling on-and-off for decades.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s cosying up to Russia, symbolised by Ankara’s determination to purchase Russian S400 surface-to-air missiles, which are not only incompatible with NATO hardware but may even risk a western hardware security breach, has also not boded well for bilateral relations. Congress even passed legislation stipulating that Turkey’s inclusion in the F35 Joint Strike Fighter program be suspended until the Pentagon issues a report on the matter.
By the time President Erdogan visited the U.S. in May 2017, not only was he only given just 22 minutes with the U.S. president, but he left a trail of ill feeling after his bodyguards beat the living daylights out of peaceful protesters right in the middle of Washington D.C.
To make matters worse, in January 2018, an executive of a Turkish state-owned bank was found guilty of violating the Iran Sanctions Act. A New York court heard how oil for gold was exchanged between Turkey and the Islamic Republic. Reza Zarrab, the architect of the operation who had turned state witness, testified that this was sanctioned by the highest levels of the Turkish government including Mr Erdogan.
By summer 2018, the Trump Administration had had enough, and in an unprecedented move slapped Magnitsky Act sanctions on Turkey which targeted the Justice and Interior ministers specifically. To ratchet up the pressure, the U.S. doubled steel and aluminium tariffs.
Despite hot words and bluster by Turkish politicians, as well as meaningless reciprocal sanctions of its own, by the end of October, Turkey finally backed down and the Turkish courts ordered the release of Pastor Brunson. Within days mutual sanctions were lifted and U.S. and Turkish leaders were on the phone discussing security arrangements for Manbij, Syria.
Indeed, ties appear to be back on track. The U.S. named Turkey as one of the eight countries temporarily permitted to continue petroleum purchases from Iran, despite the additional sanctions being snapped back into action. And on 6 November, Washington announced U.S.$4-5 million rewards for any information on several leading PKK operatives. Assumedly, in return Washington expects Turkey to turn a (relatively) blind eye to U.S. and YPG security cooperation to the east of the Euphrates in Syria.
North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, and now Turkey’s Erdogan, perhaps it is the case that unlike his interactions with democratic allies in the West, when it comes to confrontations with belligerent authoritarian strongmen, President Trump knows how to deal with them. Indeed, were it not the constitutional checks and balances of the U.S. system, Trump’s inclinations might not be too far removed from such leaders. Put another way, it takes one to know one.
Nevertheless, one shouldn’t expect too much from the current trajectory of U.S.-Turkish relations in the short to middle term. Although ties are certainly now in a healthier condition, there are still significant issues outstanding between them.
Not least of these is the actual implementation of the Manbij understanding where the U.S. agreed that YPG militias should vacate the city. Turkey’s shelling of YPG positions east of the Euphrates (the U.S conceded that there should not be YPG held areas to the West but not East) is bound to anger Washington which still sees YPG as critical to the final defeat of ISIS.
Meanwhile, Turkey has shown no signs from backing away from the S400 deal with Russia, and some U.S. consular employees remain in jail. There’s a long way ahead before relations get back to normal, but Trump, for the timing being, has able to ensure that there was at least a start.
Dr Simon A. Waldman is a Mercator-IPC fellow at the Istanbul Policy Center and a visiting research fellow at King's College London. He is the co-author of The New Turkey and Its Discontents (Oxford University Press, 2017). Twitter: @simonwaldman1