By John Sitilides*
President Trump’s meeting with President Erdogan reflected the very difficult and complex nature of the U.S.-Turkish relationship, especially since Turkey’s harsh responses to the 2013 Gezi protests, the 2016 failed coup and the democratic transgressions that have followed, the purchase of advanced Russian missiles, and the Turkish military invasion targeting Syrian Kurds in northeastern Syria – all by a notional NATO ally.
Turkey’s nearly seventy years of defense cooperation integration within the NATO alliance, its earlier regional model as a secular Islamic society, its decades-long storage of dozens of U.S. nuclear weapons, and its strategic location as a land bridge between Europe, Asia and the Middle East remain deeply ingrained within the Washington national security bureaucracy’s policy planning towards Ankara. Increasingly, there is refreshed thinking inside Congress and within American think tanks and policy institutes that Turkey’s authoritarian domestic and antagonistic regional directions of the past half-decade render it an increasingly unreliable ally, if not an outright disruptor of Western values and power projection in its increasingly perilous neighborhood.
President Trump seems to be looking to hold Turkey accountable for its most troublesome actions, especially the partial imposition of sanctions for the purchase of Russian missiles, while looking ahead to a post-Erdogan Turkish leadership that may seek to restore the relationship to a more constructive level. His willingness to inflict massive injury to the Turkish economy over the unlawful jailing of an American pastor reflects a readiness to act when he feels U.S. citizens and interests are directly harmed.
President Trump smartly invited five Republican Senators who all challenged President Erdogan directly about his Russian missiles purchase and military actions against Syrian Kurds, including possible war crimes. It demonstrated President Trump’s unorthodox way of communicating to President Erdogan that severe sanctions are a distinct possibility under the current Congress. Unless President Erdogan reverses course on the Russian missiles and the targeting of Syrian Kurdish forces, there may be no alternative to punishing economic sanctions across the range of Turkish government, corporate, financial and individual targets. This would significantly deepen Turkey’s current economic recession, with real GDP growth at minus 1.7%, inflation over 19%, and unemployment at 14%. The lira has already depreciated close to 30% against the U.S. dollar. President Erdogan’s political survival may depend on preventing any further U.S. sanctions, delivering tremendous leverage to the White House to exercise wisely.
Russia and Turkey are historic enemies, having fought a dozen wars over the centuries, all of them won by Russia except for the Cold War, with Turkey on the side of the winning NATO alliance. Today, Moscow and Ankara are developing a tactical partnership that exploits the violent chaos in Syria, the diplomatic isolation and coming economic collapse of Iran, and the perennial question of the Kurdish future, in order to diminish the power projection and geopolitical influence of the United States in their shared Eurasian space from the Black Sea to the Gulf of Oman. This is a serious concern for Western security planners, given Moscow’s determination to destabilize European politics and disaggregate both NATO and the European Union, combined with Turkey’s central strategic position to influence national and non-state policies from the Balkans to Afghanistan. U.S. policy must also effectively draw Turkey away
from China, which is enticing President Erdogan with offers to double investments in Turkey to $6 billion in the next two years.
Ideally, President Trump would have also raised the issue of Turkish weaponization of millions of refugees and migrants, condemning any threat to release them into Greece and the broader European Union. It is critical that the White House directly communicate that Turkish threats against Greek sovereign interests in the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas, as well as against U.S. and international energy exploration in Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone, endanger Western security, energy, economic and legal interests in southeastern Europe. Pushing President Erdogan to reverse his authoritarian policies and move Turkey towards greater democracy and individual liberties should emphasize religious freedom for all of Turkey’s religious minorities, including the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
The White House is closely watching domestic and foreign policy shifts in Turkey, given the importance of the U.S.-Turkey relationship bilaterally and in the context of vital national security considerations in the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean regions. It would benefit U.S.-Turkey relations for President Erdogan’s supporters in media and government to end the anti-American and anti-NATO sentiment that may permanently damage relations in ways that will severely harm Turkey’s own interests, as well as broader Western objectives in Turkey’s neighborhood and the wider region.
It is a daunting challenge anticipating any next moves by President Erdogan regarding his relationship with President Trump or other major political leaders. Any unilateral Turkish actions in Syria that imperil the military campaign against radical Islamist terrorists, or threaten the Syrian Kurdish forces that have successfully defeated Islamic State, may trigger a significant backlash from the U.S. Congress and limit President Trump’s diplomatic hand.
Similarly, bilateral relations are already frayed after Turkey began receiving the S-400 missile systems from Russia, exposing high-technology American military systems to intelligence compromises that are absolutely unacceptable to the U.S. military command. President Erdogan’s misguided demands for Fetullah Gulen’s extradition from the United States when the legal evidence does not meet the required standard has also created very unwelcome problems. The U.S. seeks the strongest possible mutually beneficial relationship with Turkey. If Ankara seeks the same, the relationship can improve. If President Erdogan chooses otherwise, he will have delivered to the citizens of Turkey a poorer and less secure future.
* Under a U.S. government contract since 2006 (under the Trump, Obama and Bush administrations), John Sitilides is the Southern Europe Regional Coordinator at the Foreign Service Institute, the State Department’s professional development and diplomacy academy for American foreign policy professionals. A professional geopolitical risk specialist, he is former Chairman of the Woodrow Wilson Center Southeaster Europe Project and former Executive Director of the Western Policy Center, in Washington D.C.