Turkey, Trump and the new geopolitics

Turkey, Trump and the new geopolitics
Comment: Fraught relations between Washington and Ankara speak of a wider story in the Middle East, writes Bashdar Ismaeel.
6 min read
03 Sep, 2018
The Turkey-US relationship has been deteriorating throughout Donald Trump's presidency [NurPhoto]
An escalating crisis between Turkey and the United States has intensified in recent weeks, leading to aggressive rhetoric from both sides and tit-for-tat punitive economic measures, causing the the Turkish Lira to plummet and damage to ties between once strategic allies.

The main bone of contention is the ongoing detention of US Pastor Andrew Brunson, who is on trial in Turkey for espionage and terror-related charges linked to the failed 2016 coup attempt.

Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan remains resentful of what he sees as the West's indifference over the failed coup plot, which he blames on US-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom the US has refused to extradite.   

But b
ilateral ties have been under increasing strain for a number of years, with Syria's civil war presenting perhaps the biggest gulf between the two sides.

The US rejected working with Turkey and their Syrian opposition allies in the fight to oust the Islamic State group from Syria. Instead, they partnered with the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which Turkey alleges have links to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an armed group outlawed in Turkey which has fought a violent three-decade insurgency against Ankara. 

SDF forces, supported by US firepower, were pivotal in pushing back IS and in turn assuming control of large swathes of Syrian territory.

Turkey has hovered between diplomacy and open threats over US support for Kurdish forces - for example, threatening US troops with an "Ottoman slap" if Washington blocked Turkey's military incursion into northwest Syria. However, the US has largely refused to heed frequent Turkish protests.
There have been efforts to repair ties in recent years, but in practice, the ongoing spats have seen Turkey look eastwards and forge closer ties with Iran, China, and in particular, Russia

The military operations Turkey launched earlier this year saw them take Afrin from Kurdish forces, and Erdogan now has his sights on Manbij and other Kurdish-held areas.

On the surface, there have been efforts to repair ties in recent years, but in practice, the ongoing spats have seen Turkey look eastwards and forge closer ties with Iran, China, and in particular, Russia. It has often repeated the message that its options extend beyond its western allies and NATO, in which Turkey has the second-largest army.

Erdogan warned in the face of punitive tariffs announced by Trump that the decades-long US-Turkey alliance was at risk, and that Turkey "may start looking for new friends and allies".

These closer ties with Moscow and measures such as the purchase of Russian made S-400 missile defence systems, as well as tepid enthusiasm for enforcing the latest US instigated sanctions on Tehran have only stoked the fire with Washington.

The Trump administration has tried for months to release Brunson, who Trump previously described as a "fine gentleman and Christian leader" who is being "persecuted in Turkey for no reason".

US Vice-President Mike Pence vowed that Turkey would "face the consequences" if it did not release Brunson, while the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, warned of "significant sanctions".

These escalating threats eventually led to Trump's announcement of a doubling in aluminum and steel tariffs on Turkish exports.

The already-struggling Lira was badly hit as a result and Trump knew very well this would hurt Erdogan and Turkey much more than any political steps or arms embargo. After all, Trump has previously used the significant US economic leverage through sanctions to punish the likes of Russia, Iran, China and North Korea. 

The effect of sanctions is two-fold, one as a show of force and a message that US is not to be messed with, and secondly, to exert concessions.

As far as concessions are concerned, these yield unpredictable results and a headstrong leader such as Erdogan is unlikely to succumb to US demands through such shows of force from Washington.

Erdogan does not want to be seen as surrendering to the West, but on the contrary, as a leader who refused to buckle to the bullying tactics of a superpower.

Of course, Erdogan's increasingly hawkish stance will not be without repercussions for Turkey. While Ankara may paint the fall of the Lira and other economic struggles as the handiwork of the West, the economic issues facing Turkey run far deeper.

Rising inflation, the government's refusal to raise interest rates, and a growing account deficit speak of troubles for Ankara that are not easily papered over.

The measures undertaken by Turkey to shore-up confidence have instilled some stability in the currency in recent days, but the overall decline of the Lira in the past year as well as the structural fragility that remains in the Turkish economy, will require more than external investment if they are to be thoroughly addressed. 

As rhetoric intensified, Erdogan announced a ban on US electronic goods and tariffs on certain US goods. "If [the United States] have the iPhone, there's Samsung on the other side," he said, a statement that has as much political weight as it does economic. 

Waiting on the "the other side" of course, is the likes of Putin, who sees a prime opportunity to undermine NATO. While the crisis has not reached the point of Turkey leaving the military alliance, an embittered Turkey remaining inside NATO may be more advantageous to Moscow than if it were to leave.

Erdogan was quick to speak with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the aftermath of Trump's tariffs. Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has just completed a two-day visit to Turkey, where Syria and economic ties were top of the agenda.

Lavrov lamented the sanctions imposed on Turkey and Russia as "illegitimate" and as attempts by the US to "dominate everywhere and in everything".

As the US signed a bill to stop shipments of F-35 jets to Turkey, Erdogan could turn to Russia to purchase other military hardware. Much like the sale of S-400 missile defence systems, this creates unease and embarrassment within NATO, which ironically, was set-up to keep Russia in check.

Eventually, the US and Turkey may have little choice but to strike a more conciliatory tone, at least in public

Beyond arms purchasing and cosier ties with Russia, Turkey has other steps of its own to counter any further US punishment. This includes the potential closure of the strategic Incirlik air base, blocking Washington's only gateway to the Black Sea, and more hawkish steps in Syria, especially against Kurdish forces.

Both sides seem to be ready to escalate retaliatory steps further, with Washington expressing vociferous dismay that Brunson has not been released.

Eventually, the US and Turkey may have little choice but to strike a more conciliatory tone, at least in public - but these wounds will not be easy to heal. Turkey remains of geopolitical importance to the US and the West, and a long-term Turkish strategic alignment to the East will damage US and EU interests.

The uneasy ties between the EU and Turkey are an apt reminder of this. The unprecedented migration crisis that EU member states struggle to manage puts massive strain on the alliance. While the EU-Turkey deal might have stemmed the flow of migrants a little, Turkey has not been shy to remind the EU of the power it holds on this issue.

On the other hand, Turkey can ill afford any more economic troubles. 
And with deep Russian geopolitical interests in Syria, Ankara will also remain wary of Russia's next steps in Idlib province - especially any that may be detrimental to their interests.

Bashdar Ismaeel is a writer and geopolitical, energy and security analyst.

Follow him on Twitter: @BashdarIsmaeel

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.