At around 2 P.M. on Black Friday, Turkish Finance and Treasury Minister (and son-in-law of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan) Berat Albayrak finished speaking at a press conference to which he had invited a number of businesspeople. Albayrak, who was sworn in barely a month ago, promised his listeners that he planned to implement a new economic program, to preserve the independence of the central bank and to strengthen the Turkish lira.
Albayrak is not an inspiring public speaker, in contrast to his father-in-law. The businesspeople nodded slightly; it appeared as if the lira was willing to give him a chance when it nudged above the depths of the abyss into which it had fallen. But then, with timing that was anything but random, U.S. President Donald Trump fired the cruel tweet announcing the doubling of tariffs on imports of Turkish steel and aluminum, to 20 and 50 percent, respectively. The lira couldn’t withstand the new pressure and plunged to the vicinity of 6 lira to the dollar. World currency markets soon followed.
Just two days before, Erdogan tried to encourage citizens who had purchased dollars in a panic to convert them back into the local currency, saying, “If [the Americans] have their dollar, we have the people, we have Allah.” Allah, so it would seem, was busy elsewhere.
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After another tub-thumping speech on Friday and Trump’s tweet, Erdogan made an urgent phone call to the only person who might be able to help: Russian President Vladimir Putin. The purpose of the widely reported conversation was not to trigger a flow of rubles or dollars into Ankara’s coffers, but rather to demonstrate Erdogan’s willingness to make good on his threat “to start looking for new friends and allies” if the United States continued to disrespect “our long-standing friendship,” as Erdogan wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times on Friday.
At the same time, a high-ranking Turkish delegation in Washington was laboring to repair the damage to the alliance caused by the personal sanctions levied by the administration on August 1 against Turkish Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul and Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, which came over their alleged role in the continued detention of Andrew Brunson. These sanctions carried the message that the United States has no intention of negotiating over the terms of release for Brunson, who was arrested over two years ago and accused of collaborating with the conspirators behind the failed coup in July 2016. Washington is demanding the immediate and unconditional release of Brunson and other U.S. citizens being held by Turkey. The Trump administration gave Turkey until August 15 to meet its terms or face new sanctions.
But the Brunson affair is only the tip of the iceberg in the cooling relations between Turkey and the United States in recent years. Turkey is still upset over what it sees as then-President Barack Obama’s failure to denounce the coup attempt and the continuing U.S. refusal to extradite the American-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan accuses of planning and initiating the coup.
Erdogan was sure that Trump, a man after his own heart whom he was quick to congratulate after his November 2016 election win, would give him what he wanted. That didn’t happen. The split widened when Trump began supporting the Kurdish militias in northern Syria, correctly seeing them as a critical force in the war against the Islamic State. Erdogan’s threats and supplications fell on deaf ears. The Kurdish militias continued to be the primary military plank of U.S. policy in Syria, enjoying monetary and military support.
Erdogan, in contrast, views the militias as terror organizations that joined up with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK — which is classified as a terror organization in Turkey. It was only after Turkey invaded Syria and captured the Kurdish province of Afrin that Ankara and Washington reached agreements on control of Manbij, after the Kurdish forces withdrew from the town and ceded it to a local council under the rule of the Turkish-sponsored Free Syrian Army.
Turkey’s announcement of its imminent purchase of Russian-made long-range S-400 ground-to-air missiles further exacerbated its relations with the United States. According to reports based on U.S. and Turkish sources, Ankara already signed the deal, worth over $2.5 billion, and the first of the missile defense systems is slated for delivery in 2020.
The diplomatic message the deal sends – that Turkey, a member of NATO, will be the first country to include Russian weapon systems in its armed forces, a move that could affect the military coordination capabilities of the alliance’s other members – overshadows its strategic significance. The U.S. pressure on Turkey to cancel the deal in favor of buying Patriot missiles from it has not yielded results so far. Turkey does not want to leave NATO, although it’s not an impossibility. Rather, it seeks to prove that it’s not in anyone’s pocket, whether it’s the Russians, the Americans or the European Union.
That’s where Erdogan’s latest terror attack on Trump’s policy comes in. The Turkish president announced that his country would not be joining the new economic sanctions against Iran that went into effect this month in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear agreement. “We buy oil from Iran and we purchase it in proper conditions. What is the other option?” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said. Turkey purchases around half of its petroleum from Iran; switching suppliers would mean increasing the amount it buys from Russia, which could end up providing some 60 percent of Turkey’s petroleum imports.
The fraught relations may resemble a chess game, but the two primary players, Trump and Erdogan, don’t have the patience or the temperament required of chess players. At the same time, they still have critical shared interests that could force a reconciliation.
Erdogan proved in his relations with Russia that he can apologize and renew ties when necessary, and Trump is known for his phenomenal ability to reverse policy decisions within days of announcing them. But reconciliation with the United States is no substitute for a Turkish economic program that could rescue the country from its financial crisis. Erdogan has the necessary political authority and backing to declare an economic emergency or to raise interest rates, as the central bank wants. The question is the degree to which he can rely on the public’s support, in light of the deep lack of confidence in the lira.
Turkey is not Iran, but the images of protests in the streets of Tehran and other cities in the wake of the fall of the rial ought to keep the president who would be king from sleeping soundly at night.