Turkish-American Relations between Erdogan’s Visit to the White House and Fundamental Issues

EPC | 20 Nov 2019

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan received a warm welcome at the White House from President Trump on Wednesday. This façade of good relations between the two countries is highly deceiving, however. Any sense of victory Turkey claims after this visit is bound to be illusory. In reality, the two countries are wide apart on substantive issues, and the two presidents are very lonely at the top.

In both Turkey and the United States, the media, public opinion, national security establishments and legislators are highly resentful of each other. Turkey has a dismal image in the United States after its military incursion in northern Syria. In an extremely polarized Congress, anger against Turkey is probably the only bipartisan issue. There is major momentum in the Senate for passing a highly punitive resolution, already approved by the House of Representatives a couple of weeks ago, that will sanction the Turkish economy and defense sectors  over the purchase of Russian missile defense systems. In fact, the negotiations between Trump and Erdogan in the oval office have reportedly focused almost exclusively on this contentious issue. There is no doubt that the S-400 question has now replaced the Kurdish issue in Syria as the main predicament that is poisoning already strained ties between the two NATO allies. Even Trump, who is normally reluctant to talk of problems with Ankara in front of cameras had to declare that: ““Turkey’s acquisition of sophisticated Russian military equipment, such as the S-400, creates some very serious challenges for us and we are talking about it constantly,” during his joint news conference with Erdogan.

Trump must have tried hard to convince Erdogan to declare that he would not activate the Russian system. The presence of heavyweight Republican senators such as Lindsey Graham at the oval office during Trump’s talk with Erdogan was also highly unusual and a stark reminder of the growing role of Congress in matters related to Turkey. Erdogan probably needed to reminder. After all, he knows all too well that the Armenian genocide resolution and heavy financial and political sanctions were approved by the House of Representatives with an overwhelming majority only a couple of weeks ago.  While Graham declared he would not bring the Armenian Genocide resolution to the floor of the Senate, he made no such commitment about the more important threat of heavy economic and military sanctions.  

Equally important is the fact Turkey is now part of the domestic impeachment debate in American politics. The Washington Post and the New York Times both ran deep-dive, front page stories questioning Trump’s financial investments in Turkey the day of the visit. There is clear evidence of growing pressure on Democrats to include Turkey, in addition to Ukraine, in the impeachment hearings that started in public the day Erdogan was welcomed at the White House. It was not lost that even John Bolton, Trump’s former national security advisor suggested President Trump’s reluctance to punish Erdogan after the purchase of Russian missile is motivated “by personal or financial interests.” These dynamics don’t bode well for an American president facing impeachment. In case Erdogan believes Trump will continue to protect him from the ire of U.S. legislators he should think again. Ankara should recalibrate its strategy and diversify its portfolio in Washington beyond just the White House. Reaching out to the Senate, with the message that Turkey is open to reconsider the activation of the S-400s would be a good start. But Ankara is not there.  Instead, Erdogan, who described Mr. Trump as a “dear friend” as he spoke at a press conference, accused the US House of Representatives of “casting a deep shadow” over the countries’ bilateral relationship.

 At this point Erdogan appears to be more concerned about not alienating Putin than making nice with Washington. The fact that Turkish public opinion has turned very anti-American helps Erdogan. In the eyes of an overwhelming majority of Turks, the United States is considered the top national security, mainly because of Washington’s support for Syrian Kurds. US support of Kurdish forces in the region, which include the YPG, in military operations to eradicate Islamic State fighters has long been seen as a security threat by officials in Ankara, putting pressure on bilateral relations since 2014, when the arrangement began.

The fact that Washington refused to extradite Fetullah Gulen, who is widely considered the mastermind of a bloody coup attempt in 2016, is another major irritant. Erdogan’s decision to send the Turkish army to crush the burgeoning Kurdish federation across the border in Syria received the enthusiastic support of the whole political spectrum, including the center-left secular opposition that should know better because it depends on Kurdish political support to stand a chance in any future elections against Erdogan. But nationalism is Erdogan’s most powerful weapon and he is using extremely effectively to undermine the unity of the opposition block against composed of strange bedfellows such as the pro-Kurdish Peoples Democracy Party, the rightwing anti-Kurdish Good Party and the secular Kemalist, Republican Peoples Party.

Erdogan’s Domestic Calculations

 So high is anti-Americanism in Turkey that Erdogan had to calculate carefully the pros and cons of a visit to Washington.  Under normal circumstances, the cumulative impact of the highly undiplomatic letter Trump wrote to Erdogan – warning him not to be “a tough guy”— the Armenian genocide resolution, the threat of economic and military sanctions could have easily led Erdogan to conclude that he needed to snub Trump’s invitation to the White House and play the “nationalist pride”  card with a rally around the flag strategy at home. There were also rumors that Erdogan was planning on calling early elections to capitalize on the military incursion into Syria and the nationalist momentum it created.  Instead Erdogan took a risk by going to the White House. To be sure, he tried to assuage his nationalist base at home with a message during the press conference that he returned the letter Trump wrote to him. Trump didn’t respond at the news conference.

Erdogan also was thinking about his nationalist base when he tried to give a response on the Armenian issue: ““Some historical developments and accusations are being used in order to dynamite our reciprocal and bilateral relations,” Erdogan said today. “Especially in the House of Representatives, some of the resolutions that were passed on Oct. 29 served this very purpose,” which, he said, “deeply hurt the Turkish nation.” He added, “The decision-makers in an incident that took place over 100 years ago should not be politicians, but historians.”

Given the state of the Turkish economy suffering from high unemployment, high inflation, a weak currency, and major risks due private sector debt, the argument that Erdogan launched the Syria incursion to divert attention from his domestic problems is highly  plausible. It is also abundantly clear that time is not on Erdogan’s side. Newly emerging political formations on the center-right are threatening the unity of Erdogan’s ruling party and the momentum of the center-left secular opposition after winning the local elections in a landslide clearly made him nervous.

In the meantime, it is highly questionable whether Erdogan has the stamina for major economic reforms that are desperately needed for addressing urgent fiscal problems. Turkey’s international reserves are low and external financing needs are high. Corporate balance sheets have been adversely affected by lira depreciation, higher interest rates, and this in turn negatively affects bank loan quality. Erdogan knows that prospects for stronger and more sustainable growth would be helped by putting in place a comprehensive package of reforms, including tight monetary policy, medium-term fiscal consolidation, a more detailed assessment of bank health, further improvements to the insolvency regime, and focused structural reforms. But his political and economic instincts remain very populist. In other words, he still hopes that lowering interest rates and raising spending would solve problems by stimulating growth.

Given his reluctance to engage in painful economic reforms at home, Erdogan is playing the foreign policy game in order to boost his image and distract public opinion from the domestic economic downturn. By coming to the White House, however, Erdogan appears to have opted for the long-game instead of calling early elections. It has now become harder for him to play the nationalism, anti-Americanism, military triumphalism in Syria cards as strategy for snap elections. Instead he is now enjoying the role of grand strategist and dexterous statesman who can handle both Putin’s Russia and Trump’s America in pursuit of his country’s national security interests. After getting what he wanted on the ground in Syria, he is also trying to project an image of strength and calm by engaging in long-term negotiations with Washington for the well-being of his country. Only time and the state of the Turkish economy will show whether Erdogan’s mastery is working. For now, the economy is still weak and looming US sanctions are likely to prove a pyrrhic victory for Ankara.

Much will depend on the US Senate’s appetite for a real fight with Turkey and how Turkey will handle the S-400 issue. Despite the façade of good relations, the White House official declaration was clear. Minutes after their news conference, the White House released a statement using firmer language than the two leaders, who boast of having a warm personal relationship while their governments are largely on icy terms. “In order to achieve progress on other fronts, it is vital that we resolve the issues involving Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system, strengthening our defense partnership,” it said.

To conclude, it will be a hot winter in Turkish-American relations. Washington is extremely worried that Turkey is on a path to steadily disengage from the United States as it publicly pursues other Russian weapons systems, and American credibility could wane if the Trump administration does not follow through on sanctions threats. Just last month, Turkish officials said Ankara was in an “advanced stage” of talks to acquire  50 Russian Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets, a move that could further disentangle Turkey from NATO’s industrial base. Turkey is also hoping to purchase a second tranche of S-400 batteries, which boast powerful radar capabilities that prompted the United States to kick Turkey out of the F-35 program. 

This looming crisis between Ankara and Washington has paradigm-shifting potential because it clearly shows that the Turkish and American militaries no longer see each other as partners. Beyond defense procurement, the Turkish decision to buy Russian missile defense is symptomatic of a much larger geostrategic predicament: Washington and Ankara no longer share the same strategic interests and threat perceptions.It is therefore time to recognise that Turkey and United States have reached the end of the road as trusted partners. There is not much left from what was once a strategic alliance. Some may say the partnership has now turned into a marriage of convenience. But even then, the question is whether we are heading towards a consensual or an ugly divorce. It is becoming harder and harder to find something convenient in this marriage.  The sooner we accept this reality the better in terms of expectation management. 

Conclusion: What is next for Turkish-American Relations?

To conclude, there remains three major issues where relations between Ankara and Washington are either unresolved or potentially getting worse. These are S-400s, the Halkbank issue, and Northern Syria. 

1) S-400s:   The White House and U.S. Congress want Turkey to declare that it will not use the newly purchased Russian missile defense system.  The threat of economic and military sanctions in the framework of CAATSA are clearly on the table. Yet, Ankara doesn’t seem deterred and believes Washington has a credibility problem. After all, in the eyes of Turkey, the U.S. has been threatening with sanctions ever since Ankara began planning the purchase of a Russian weapons system. Turkey signed the agreement with Russia to purchase the S-400s, but nothing happened. Once that threshold was passed, Washington this time threatened that sanctions would take effect when the S-400s are delivered to Turkey. Once again, nothing happened. Now, the US is threatening to implement sanctions once the missiles are activated. Ibrahim Kalin, the spokesperson for the Turkish government, recently indicated that the US is always threatening but never taking concrete steps.  

Erdogan still believes Trump can veto sanctions from Congress and the Turkish national security establishment stull believes the U.S. Senate is bluffing. The fact that Ankara and Washington have  now once again  decided to work on a joint technical working group-mechanism to evaluate the impact of the S-400s on the F-35s  ( this decision was one of the few concrete results of Erdogan’s White House visit) shows that Turkey  believes it can activate the S-400s and get away with it. Some in Turkey even believe that the technical working group will prove that the activation of the S-400s will not be an impediment to Turkey’s purchase the F-35s.

All this proves that to be taken seriously, Washington needed to send a much stronger message to Ankara. Right now, there are too many carrots and not enough sticks in the US approach.  The White House visit was itself a gift to Erdogan. Another carrot is in the economic dimension: Ankara has been offered incentives such as signing a free-trade agreement with Washington that will supposedly raise the trade volume between the two countries from $20 billion to  (a highly unrealistic) $100 billions. Another carrot is that Washington stands ready to incentivize the sale of Patriot Missiles to Ankara under favorable financial terms. As a result, while there is only one major American stick in the form of sanctions that no one in Turkey believes will pass the US Senate, there is an abundance of American carrots as incentives offered to Turkey for its cooperation.

2) The Halkbank Case:  The only exception to the sense of Turkish complacency is the case of this state-owned bank that has been indicted in a New York Federal district court last month. The bank was formally charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to violate sanctions, conspiracy to commit bank fraud, money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering. The charges were filed by prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, which has been investigating the bank’s role in what has been called the largest Iran sanctions violation in United States history, as billions of dollars’ worth of gold and cash were illegally transferred to Iran in exchange for oil and gas. Justice Department officials said high-ranking government officials in Turkey “participated in and protected this scheme,” with some receiving bribes worth tens of millions of dollars and helping to hide the conspiracy from the scrutiny of regulators in the United States.

The case is important because it can allow Trump to pressure Erdogan by saying that he doesn’t control the courts. A fine of tens of billions of dollars may put significant pressure on Turkey’s already fragile balance of accounts. The result of the Halkbank case can take more than a year, however. In that sense, although this is an important tool for Washingon, it is one the administration cannot fully control because of separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary. At the end of the day, although very important for Turkish-American relations, the Halkbank case  will take some time to make a big impact.

3) Northern Syria:  For Erdogan sending Turkish and  Turkish proxy Arab troops across the border was not just a matter of repelling the Kurds but also a way to resolve the refugee crisis with a safe zone where some of the 3.6 million Syrians who fled to Turkey would be repatriated. Erdogan has proposed building 10 towns in the safe zone, with hospitals, schools and industrial sites to accommodate a million people. Printed handouts given to foreign journalists declared that Turkey would use international money to cover the cost, which is estimated at $26 billion. It was not clear where that money would come from.   Erdogan’s plan doesn’t resonate with the United States, the European Union and the United Nations for a basic reason:   under international law, refugees cannot be forced to return to their country of origin. In a meeting in early November  with Mr. Erdogan in Ankara, the United Nations secretary general, António Guterres  stressed the basic principles relating to the voluntary, safe and dignified return of refugees.  Erdogan has received similar warning from the US Senators present in the Oval Office during his White House visit. As a result, it is not surprising to see Erdogan turn increasingly silent in recent weeks on his objective of sending Syrians refugees to Northern Syria. Finally, the issue of US disarmament of YPG forces is also no longer on the agenda since US forces are reduced and stationed further south near the oilfields. The YPG will remain a major irritant in Turkish-American relations, but Washington can now claim it no longer has strategic leverage over Syrian Kurds.

As a result, it is becoming increasingly difficult to claim a big strategic victory for Erdogan in terms of the domestic consequences of his adventure in Northern Syria. Erdogan of course enjoyed strong domestic backing for last month’s incursion into Syria but the patriotic bounce in his support has already begun to fade. Instead economic problems are once again on the agenda: unemployment  at close to 15 percent is close to a record high, inflation is creeping up and consumer confidence extremely low. With the onset of winter expected to drive home the impact of recent rises in gas and electricity prices, analysts say the popularity of Turkey’s latest military venture will be quickly forgotten. What will remain, is problems with the United States and the fear of a pro-longed recession.  

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