USA-Turkey Relations in the Trump Era: An alliance in tatters

by Georgios Archangelakis,

The Trump administration’s Middle East policies have changed dramatically, not only in comparison with those of his predecessor but also, by the clear absence of a coherent strategy. Unlike Barak Obama’s efforts to heal the open wounds left by the previous president, George W. Bush, Donald Trump has abandoned core policies, like the promotion of political reforms and the reinforcement of democratic norms. The president of the United States has been focused on a bloc of allies led by Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates, with his primary concern to be how to contain Iran. (Watanabe, 2018) However, what about the strategic partnership with Turkey? Considering the downward trajectory that the U.S.-Turkey relations have been for years, this research is examining the series of events during the Trump’s presidency that led their alliance in tatters and emphasizes in their ever-shrinking alliance.

The case of Andrew Brunson

 The diplomatic crisis that erupted in 2017, concerning the arrest of the American pastor Andrew Brunson, it may be considered as the first major wrangle over the U.S.-Turkish relations, during Donald Trump’s presidency. In the aftermath of the failed military coup d’état that shook Turkey in July 2016, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blamed the “parallel state” and more specifically the Gulenists, a movement organized around the leadership of the cleric Fethullah Gülen, for Turkey’s coup attempt. The Turkish government organized a large-scale operation of purging those who were alleged to be behind the coup and those who were associated with the Gülen Movement. (Tol, et al., 2016) Among the vast number of people who were affected by this ‘’cleansing’’ and taken into custody was the pastor of the Izmir Resurrection Church and US citizen, Andrew Brunson. The Presbyterian pastor, who had been living in Turkey since 1993, was accused of actions said to constitute a national security risk such as espionage and affiliation with an armed terrorist organization that is associated with the Gülen Movement. (Toksabay, 2018) Despite U.S.’s efforts to release the pastor, President Erdogan utilized Brunson’s case as a bargaining chip to pressure the U.S. government for the extradition of Fethullah Gülen and release of Reza Zarrab, a Turkish-Iranian businessman who accused of helping Iran evade international sanctions and money laundering. However, during a meeting held in Washington in May 2017, President Trump declined to interfere, firstly in the extradition because of the legal aspects and secondly in the release since it was a criminal issue. (Yayla, 2017) Yet, following Turkey’s refusal to release the prisoners, the U.S. government, imposed sanctions on two high-ranking officials of the Turkish government and a doubling of tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminum imports. Turkey responded with reciprocal sanctions. (CRS Report, 2018) Nevertheless, this escalation of their bilateral relations with the imposition of reciprocal sanctions, somewhat usual between two allies, led the Turkish economy to continuous financial turbulence that lasted even after Brunson’s release. (Honore, 2018, Aliriza & Yekeler, 2018)

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Figure 1 Andrew Brunson arriving at a Turkish airport on Friday. Emre Tazegul/Associated Press

The Russian S-400 Missile System

U.S.-Turkey relations have worsened even more after Turkey’s S-400 air defense system acquisition from Russia. In 2017, Turkey and Russia signed an agreement that involves the bilateral “cooperation on technological development and joint production of systems” and the purchase of two S-400 defense missile systems by Turkey. Regardless of Turkey’s assurances that the missile system will be under the control of the Turkish Armed Forces and that it won’t be interoperable with NATO’s radar systems, the deal raised serious concerns regarding the system’s integration within NATO’s military architecture but also broader political queries. (Hürriyet Daily News, 2017) Currently, Turkey’s decision to obtain a Russian S-400 missile defense system is the most serious friction point among the NATO members and Turkey. Besides the compatibility and the challenges that the S-400s poses to NATO, the issue raises questions in relation to Turkey’s participation in the Alliance and whether it is looking for a new security relationship with Russia. Therefore, Turkey’s commitment to NATO as well as the warming ties between Ankara and Moscow, cannot be assessed separately from its bilateral ties with the U.S. (Çeviköz, 2018)

Turkey backed its decision to purchase the Russian military equipment in the refuse of NATO allies to sell them an air defense system, as well as, the cost and capabilities of the system. (CRS Report, 2018) Nevertheless, the U.S. clearly objected Ankara’s decision to purchase the S-400 system and threatened to use the “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA)” against Turkey, to impose sanctions on the companies involved in the deal, to suspend the transfer of the F-35 jets purchased by Turkey and exclude Turkey from their joint construction, and finally, to suspend cooperation, technology transfer and the supply of spare parts for the Turkish military. Moscow’s ability to gain sensitive information regarding the combating techniques of the F-35 jets seems to be just the tip of the iceberg. Alongside the obvious reasons behind the pressure by the U.S to Turkey to withdrawal from the agreement with Russia, is the fact that the F-35s are already used by U.S allies in the Middle East (Israel) and that Ankara will have the full control of the missile system. (Strachota & Wilk, 2019)

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Figure 2 US President Donald Trump and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan take part in a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House [Mandel Ngan/AFP]

Nevertheless, during the summer of 2019, the issue of the S-400s led to a point of no return. The first components of the $2.5 billion worth Russian missile system arrived in Turkey, defying the U.S.’s deadline until the end of July to terminate the deal and the threats for sanctions. (DW, 2019) The U.S. has proposed the American-made Patriot system as an alternative to the S-400 missile system, but then again Turkey rejected it with the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mevlüt Çavusoğlu to say that “We’ve always said regarding the S400s that it’s an agreement that has been finalized and the process continues to progress”. (McKernan, 2019) The mended relations between Turkey and Russia, after the Russian involvement in the Syrian crisis and Turkey’ shooting down of a Russian jet, may be due to the divergence relations of Turkey with U.S. Specifically, the U.S.’s support in the Syrian Democratic Forces, the dissatisfaction of Washington on Ankara’s relations with Moscow and Iran, and U.S.’s strategy in the Eastern Mediterranean seems to be the main stumbling blocks to their relationship. (Dalay, 2019) Thus, in July 2019, the U.S. government removed Turkey from the F-35 jet program while it was broadly discussed whether President Trump will impose or not sanctions under the CAATSA. (Zengerle, 2019) During the recent meeting of the two leaders in Washington, although President Trump praised his relationship with Turkish President Erdogan, the S-400s remains a serious shift in their bilateral relations. (Al Jazeera, 2019)

Syria and the attacks on Kurdish fighters

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The U.S. response over Turkey’s military actions in Syria has been contradictory and their relations were strained over U.S.’ support to Kurdish militias in Syria even before Trump’s election. Turkey’s “realpolitik” policy that required the security of its national integrity was realized in its strategic goals in Syria, namely, to degrade Kurdish militancy. In order to achieve this, Turkey utilized three instruments: armed intervention, international agreements, and support to rivals of Kurds. (Hoover, 2019) Long-Awaited Turkey’s military intervention in Syria, as part of the war on ISIS and the ‘’terror groups’’ in northern Syria, came to fruition in August 2016. Turkey launched its first coordinated attack in Syria with the U.S.-led coalition, the so-called Operation Euphrates Shield, that it had a dual objective, firstly to take control of the ISIS-held town of Jarabulus and secondly to contain the Kurdish forces (People’s Protection Units (YPG)) expansionism in northern Syria. (Shaheen, 2016) In particular, the incursion, that took place during the Turkish-U.S. tension over the extradition of Fethullah Gülen, aimed to halt the Kurdish YPG forces from filling the vacuum left by ISIS. Therefore, Turkey demanded the Kurdish militia -a close ally of the U.S. in the fight against ISIS- to retreat to the east side of the Euphrates river, as Ankara views them as terrorists and a threat for its national security. (Pamuk & Bektas, 2016) That incursion underscores the shift in Turkish strategy regarding the Syrian crisis, that overlooks the importance of regime change in Syria and focuses on the containment of the Kurdish factor both domestically and regionally. (Stevenson, 2016) Yet, even though voices inside the U.S. warned Turkey regarding the attacks on Kurds (Sisk, 2016; Kurdish Institute Brussels, 2016), President Obama praised Turkey for its fight against ISIS. (Daily Sabah, 2016)

The second military intervention, known as Operation Olive Branch, began in January 2018 against the Kurd-administered region of Afrin in northern Syria. Turkey’s objective so far has been to prevent the creation of a Kurdish autonomous area in northern Syria. However, the operation further strained the U.S.-Turkish relations because Turkey ignored U.S. warnings to show restraint and avoid civilian casualties. (Hacaoglu, 2018; White House, 2018) Yet, the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mevlut Cavusoglu, explained that the discordance with the U.S. is due to the arming of ‘’terrorist’’ Kurdish militias and that the operation is ‘’an act of self-defense against […] the massive PKK and YPG terrorist encampments across [Turkish] borders’’. (Cavusoglu, 2018) Therefore, the U.S. in order to avoid a conflict between Turkish forces and the Kurdish YPG militia in northern Syria decided to establish with Turkey a joint operation center. (Guardian, 2019) Nevertheless, the U.S-Turkish joint ground patrol seemed to be inadequate to hold the tensions since, in October 2019, Turkey launched its third operation in Syria. The incursion, called Operation Peace Spring, was sparked off by President Trump’s decision to withdraw its troops from northeast Syria and aimed to push the ‘’terrorist’’ groups at least 30km away from its border and to create a buffer zone alongside the Turkish-Syrian borders for the refugees. (Zanotti & Thomas, 2019; Weise, 2019)

The U.S.’s response to the incursion has been contradictory. Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S troops from Syria, neither improved the U.S.-Turkish relations over the coalition of the U.S forces with YPG against ISIS nor shielded the Syrian Kurds from the attack, instead created new challenges. Although the decision appeared to green-light Turkey’s actions and abandon the YPG, President Trump responded to the Turkish operation with sanctions that intended to destroy the country’s economy if it did not show restraint. Furthermore, even though President Trump with a Tweet seemed to approve the conflict, afterward he imposed economic sanctions against Turkey since ‘’Turkey’s military offensive is endangering civilians, and threatening peace, security, and stability in the region’’. (White House, 2019) Moreover, in a further effort to deescalate the crisis, Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien went to Ankara for negotiations with President Erdogan. Notwithstanding the publication of an undiplomatic warning letter of President Trump to Erdogan in which he had called on him to negotiate with the YPG (CNN, 2019), the U.S. delegation announced a 120-hour ceasefire agreement with Turkey in order to allow the withdrawal of YPG fighters from a 20-mile area. (CSIS, 2019) Also, besides the suspension of the Turkish offensive in Syria and the creation of a ‘’safe zone’’, the deal stipulated that with the implementation of the ceasefire the U.S. government will not impose further sanctions and withdraw the already existing measures on Turkey. (Al Jazzera, 2019)

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Although the leader of Syrian Kurds accepted the ceasefire (McKernan, 2019), the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs said that Ankara would launch a new incursion in northeast Syria if the area was not cleared from YPG. (Reuters, 2019) However, the agreement of 22nd October 2019 between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to preserve the status quo that was established after the Operation Peace Spring and to extend the ceasefire by 150 hours in order to ease the leaving of YPG fighters, seems to be maintained. (Al Jazeera, 2019) Moreover, President Donald Trump announced that the U.S. is lifting the sanctions against Turkey, afterward the Turkish government’s statement that it will abide by the ‘’permanent’’ ceasefire. (Sonmez & Nakamura, 2019)

The future of U.S.-Turkey partnership

To conclude, as can be seen, the U.S.-Turkey bilateral relations have reached historic lows during Donald Trump’s presidency over the abovementioned issues. Although the two countries shared a close friendship for years, the conflicting interests and diverging priorities led to a strained relationship. Even though the chasm between Washington and Ankara seems to be irreparable, the U.S officials may bridge the gap by modifying U.S. policy and approach to Turkey, in which the United States opposes Turkey directly when Ankara works against U.S. interests. (Cook, 2018)

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