Turkey-US relationship at breaking point
Hopes that the Trump administration might put things back on track, based on the US president’s affinity for strongmen such as Erdogan, have faded.
2017/10/15 Issue: 127 Page: 17
The Arab Weekly
By now, it should have been clear: There would be no stopping Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has pushed the country to a definitive low point in its 70-year alliance with the United States.
The relationship is at a breaking point. There are fears the rift is irreversible.
In the past three years, the gap between Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the European Union, the United States and NATO has widened. Step by step, seemingly in pursuit of a strategy that involves giving voice to personal impulse, the stitches holding together a key alliance have been unpicked.
The US mission in Turkey has suspended non-immigrant visa services, another development in a spat between the two countries.
Erdogan, who has replaced Turkey’s agenda with his own political one, was seen as responsible for the arrests of more than a dozen US citizens. The last straw was the detention of Metin Topuz, a Turkish national employed at the US consulate in Istanbul. Some months earlier, Hamza Ulucay, another US mission staff member, who is well-known and respected in the Kurdish provinces, was arrested on terror charges.
The latest escalation builds off Erdogan’s showdown with Germany last summer. It stretched the patience of Turkey’s allies. The confrontation now appears to be a waiting game, premised on who will throw in the towel first. For Erdogan, who thinks he is being targeted from many directions, negotiation seems to be either a gamble or a bout of arm wrestling but nothing in between.
The crisis has dumbfounded observers. Fifteen years ago, Turkey, under Erdogan’s leadership, was a model for economic success as well as legal and political reform as it headed towards membership in the European Union. From the American point of view, Turkey was an example of the compatibility between Islam and democracy. It was an inspirational, even a model country.
That vision has faded and Turkey’s relationship with the United States is in trouble. Hopes that the Trump administration might put things back on track, based on the US president’s affinity for strongmen such as Erdogan, have faded. “Instead,” said Philip Gordon, a former US assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration, “the two countries are discovering how fundamentally their core security interests have diverged. They are rapidly sliding into a cycle of mutual resentment that could easily get out of hand.”
It probably will. This is not only because of Erdogan’s pattern of behaviour but because he has chosen to surround himself with anti-American, Eurosceptic members of what is called the “shadow state.” This is drawn from the old repressive bureaucracy, AKP’s ultra-nationalist political ally, the Nationalist Movement Party and pro-Russia elements.
This is a new bloc and is still forming. It feeds off across-the-board anti-Americanism — from the far left to Kemalists and fundamentalists — in Turkish society.
What has driven Erdogan to this point? The answer is simpler than most analyses. It has to do with his horror at the charges in a New York federal court against Iranian- Turkish gold trader Reza Zarrab. All Erdogan has wanted for the past two years was to make that trial go away.
As Henri Barkey, a professor of international relations at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, noted in the National Interest: “Ankara has been at odds with the United States over the detention of a Turkish-Iranian businessman and a deputy president of a Turkish bank, accused, along with others, of using the American banking system in a scheme to skirt international sanctions against Iran. Erdogan wants them returned, fearing that, if they were to spill the beans, he or his government could be implicated in a racket worth billions of dollars.”
Erdogan’s anger and despair is the core issue and it is on this count that he is accused of taking foreign nationals hostage in hopes of a swap with other countries.
Moscow is sure to be pleased to see NATO alliances under pressure but Turkey needs allies to survive. That it is heading for Russia’s orbit is obvious. Will that be enough?