'A Real NATO Ally Wouldn't Do This': U.S.-Turkey Crisis Exposes a Crumbling Partnership

The row between Trump and Erdogan was long in the making, experts and officials tell Haaretz

U.S. President Donald Trump extends a hand to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House, Washington, May 16, 2017.
Bloomberg

WASHINGTON – The ongoing crisis between the United States and Turkey reached a new low point this week, when President Donald Trump openly accused Turkey of breaking a deal the two countries had previously reached. Under the terms of that deal, according to Trump, the Turkish government promised to release Andrew Brunson, an American pastor who has been held in Turkey under flimsy charges since 2016. In return, the United States promised to pressure Israel to release a Turkish citizen who was held in the country for weeks because of suspected ties to terrorism.

Eventually, the Turkish citizen held in Israel was released and returned to Turkey, but Brunson is still being held by Turkish authorities. Trump has lashed out against Turkish President Erdogan over this behavior, accusing him of breaking a promise and making "a big mistake." Erdogan, for his part, has been even harsher in his recent statements against the United States. This week, he claimed that there is an attempted "economic coup" taking place in his country, as a way of explaining the dismal situation of the Turkish economy

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Turkey was considered for decades one of America's closest allies in the Middle East. The two countries had enjoyed a strategic relationship going back to the days of the Cold War. In recent weeks, however, Erdogan has threatened to end the strategic partnership between the countries, and Trump has said that the United States is "cutting down" on its support for Turkey. 

Experts who spoke with Haaretz this week said that this crisis should not come as a surprise. "Turkey hasn't truly been a strategic partner for quite some time," says Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations. "The past two American administrations went out of their way to try and accommodate Turkey's demands on different fronts. They invented all kinds of bureaucratic gymnastics in order to 'keep Turkey on our side,' but eventually it wasn't enough. If Turkey was truly a strategic partner, all of this wouldn't have happened in the first place." 

Gallia Lindenstrauss, an analyst at the Tel-Aviv based Institute for National Security Studies, says that "it's not a surprise there is a crisis between Turkey and the United States. The issues driving this crisis have been in the background for a long time. What is surprising, perhaps, is the severity of the crisis, and how quickly it has escalated." Lindenstrauss says those two factors "could be a result of the personalities of the two leaders involved, Trump and Erdogan, who both have their own unusual style of conducting diplomacy." 

American officials have focused most of their criticism on the issue of Brunson, the North Carolina native who was arrested in Turkey in October 2016, during Erdogan's widespread purge following the failed military coup against his government. The United States has demanded his release for close to two years now. Turkey has tried to tie his arrest to demands that are unacceptable for the United States over the course of this time. 

One demand was that the U.S. would extradite to Turkey the Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen, an avowed critic of Erdogan who has been accused by Turkey of involvement in the failed coup attempt. American officials have made it clear to Turkey that there is no legal basis for the extradition demand. Turkey, according to some reports, tried to use the influence of Trump's former National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, for the extradition effort, but that effort failed, and Flynn left the administration after less than a month in office. 

In recent weeks, Turkey has tried to tie Brunson's fate with that of an ongoing trial in the U.S. involving one of the biggest banks in Turkey, Halkbank, which allegedly broke U.S. sanction laws on Iran. The bank is state-owned, and it has been accused by U.S. authorities of helping Iran evade sanctions. It is facing the prospect of fines worth billions of dollars. Turkey has tried to connect Brunson's release to possible relief for Halkbank, but the White House has strictly rejected that option. 

A senior White House official told Haaretz this weekend that the Trump administration has made it clear to Turkey that other areas of dispute between the two countries, such as the Halkbank case, could only be discussed once Brunson has been released. 

The same official added that Halkbank has recently complied with a subpoena request from the U.S. Treasury Department regarding its activities, but the response was deemed to be insufficient. The Trump administration has told Ankara that Halkbank had to comply properly with the American legal process before any discussions about relief could even be entertained. 

In the background to these tensions are a wide range of policy issues on which the two countries don't see eye to eye. Cook mentioned a number of them in his conversation with Haaretz: "Turkey has systematically helped Iran evade sanctions; it has complicated the fight against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq by going after the Kurdish forces; it is trying to stir violence and extremism in Jerusalem, particularly around the Temple Mount area. These are all problems that have been with us for quite some time." 

Cook adds that the strategic logic of a close alliance with Turkey is less convincing today than it was in the past, when America viewed Turkey as a crucial player in limiting the Soviet Union's presence in the Middle East. Today, he says, under the Islamist leadership of Erdogan, "Turkey and the United States have different goals and different interests. I'm not saying we need to completely give up on Turkey, but rather, that we should work with them in specific areas where we can, and acknowledge the areas where we can't." 

Lindenstrauss says some of the disagreements between the two countries are "solvable", but internal political considerations make it more difficult for the leaders to work towards a solution. "It's a widespread belief in Turkey that the United States was involved in the coup attempt in 2016, even though there is no proof of such involvement," she says, adding that these claims, which were spread by Erdogan's allies, will make it more difficult for him to accept Trump's demands in any negotiation. 

Further complicating the relationship is the fate of a previously signed deal to deliver F-35 fighter jets to Turkey. That deal has currently been torpedoed by the U.S. Congress, which passed an amendment prohibiting the sale of the F-35 to Turkey. The Turkish government, for its part, has signed an agreement with Russia to purchase the S-400 defense system. Aaron Stein, an analyst at the Atlantic Council who focuses on Turkey, wrote on Tuesday that there is a "good chance" Congress would cancel funding for the F-35 transfer to Turkey, until the S-400 purchase from Russia is cancelled. It's not clear what Turkey would do in such a scenario. 

For now, the Trump administration has not said or hinted in any way that the crisis could lead to Turkey's ouster from NATO, even though some articles advocating such a step have been published in the American media. A former Israeli official who has worked with NATO and asked not to be named told Haaretz that "kicking a country out of NATO is very difficult, almost impossible to do." However, the same official said that NATO could "punish" Turkey for getting closer to Russia and acquiring Russian systems such as the S-400, by limiting the country's participation in high-level discussions and in military drills.

Cook says the American message to Turkey should simply be - "if you want to be our allies, just behave like allies." Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu claimed this week that this is exactly what Turkey is doing. He wrote in USA Today that "Turkey is committed to being an ally" of the United States, and brought up Syria as an example: "As the situation reached a critical stage, Turkey stood out as one of the few nations willing to welcome large numbers of refugees, and is playing a key role in navigating Syria’s political future," he wrote. 

The administration, however, is not fully convinced. While any discussion of Turkey's future in NATO is considered premature, the White House senior official did say that "a real NATO ally wouldn't have arrested Brunson in the first place."