Trading blows

Print edition :

President Donald Trump and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the NATO summit in Brussels on July 11. Photo: Tatyana ZENKOVICH/AFP

Andrew Brunson. He is under house arrest in Turkey. Photo: AFP

U.S. special forces soldiers at a front-line outpost outside the northern city of Manbij, Syria, on February 7. Photo: Mauricio Lima/The New York Times

Even as bilateral tensions seem to be building up between Turkey and the U.S., many observers of the region are of the view that the standoff is “a storm in a teacup”.

The serious split that is emerging between the United States and Turkey, both members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) alliance, has been in the making for some time. The roots of the current crisis can be traced to the conflict in Syria. Both the U.S. and Turkey had miscalculated with regard to Syria, thinking that a regime change there would be a cakewalk, as it was in Iraq. Both the American and Turkish governments and their allies such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar had no compunction about aiding various stripes of “jehadi” outfits, including those aligned to Al Qaeda. For a period of time, these governments stood aside as the Daesh, the so-called Islamic State, metamorphosed out of Al Qaeda and actually carved out an emirate for itself comprising significant chunks of Syria and Iraq. It was only with the decisive Russian intervention in Syria that the dreams of regime change in that country evaporated. As the civil war was spluttering to an end, Turkey and the U.S. soon found themselves on opposite sides, backing different militias as they struggled to gain a toehold in Syrian territory.

For Turkey, the final straw was the propping up of the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) militia in Syria by the Barack Obama administration as its term in office was ending. Washington knows very well that there is nothing to distinguish the YPG from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is fighting for a separate Kurdish state. The PKK remains on the U.S. State Department’s terror list, but for all practical purposes the U.S. government no longer treats it like a terror group. For that matter, the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey had itself started a dialogue process with the PKK leadership at the beginning of the decade to try to end the long-festering Kurdish insurgency. But Erdogan suddenly changed tack three years ago mainly because of domestic political compulsions, calling off the peace talks and the ceasefire.

By letting the Turkish army loose on the Kurds once again, Erdogan has been able to substantially boost his sagging popularity among his nationalist supporters. His Justice and Development (AK) Party won a series of elections and a key referendum after he ended the ceasefire with the PKK. He won the presidency this year with strong backing from the conservative nationalist base. The right-wing ultranationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which always opposed any concessions to the Kurds, gained substantially in the elections held earlier this year. The AK Party is now dependent on the MHP in the parliament as it failed to get a majority on its own.

The nationalist fervour inside Turkey was also driven to a large extent by the actions of the U.S. There are many Turks who believe that the U.S. played a direct or indirect role in the military putsch that almost overthrew Erdogan and the civilian government three years ago. The U.S. took some hours to condemn the coup attempt, while Russia and Iran were among the first countries to congratulate Erdogan after he crushed it. The Russian and Iranian governments gave Erdogan timely warnings as the coup attempt was initiated, which helped him escape arrest and possibly assassination. The warnings helped save civilian rule in the country. Washington, at the same time, has been refusing to extradite Fetullah Gulen, whom the Turkish President has described as the mastermind of the foiled coup.

All the evidence that has emerged so far points to a conspiracy by the Gulenists. But until the beginning of the decade, the AK Party and the Gulenists were thick as thieves. The Gulenists, in fact, played a big role in helping the AK Party thwart military conspiracies after it was first elected into office in 2002. They managed to take control of vast swathes of the media and business in Turkey and successfully put their people in the top echelons of the military, the bureaucracy and the judiciary. After the public falling out with Erdogan, the Gulenists started working overtime to get rid of their erstwhile ally and patron. It is highly unlikely that Western intelligence was unaware of the machinations of the group.

Erdogan has a history of taking decisions that have been unpalatable to both allies and enemies. In 2002, his government refused to give NATO permission to use Turkish territory to invade Iraq despite being part of the military alliance. Erdogan and his family used to spend summer vacations with Bashar al-Assad and his family almost up to the time the civil war broke out in Syria. Erdogan was a vociferous opponent of Russian intervention in that country. The shooting down of a Russian Air Force plane, causing the death of the pilot, seriously ruptured relations between Turkey and Russia two years ago. Until the Syrian government recaptured Aleppo last year, Turkey openly supported some of the jehadist groups fighting against the government in Damascus. When the writing on the wall became clear, Turkey joined Russia and Iran to kick-start a peace process in Syria. Turkey continues to support the remnants of jehadi groups still holding out in Idlib.

The Turkish government now had to deal with a problem of its own making in Syria as its U.S. ally started laying the groundwork for an autonomous Kurdish enclave along its border. The Turkish government has been saying that under no circumstances will it tolerate an autonomous or independent Kurdish region there. Turkey’s stand on the Syrian Kurds has been supported by its immediate neighbours that have sizeable Kurdish populations of their own, such as Iran and Iraq. The Americans have trained the YPG and provided it with arms and advisers. The YPG along with a motley group of Arab militias assisted by American firepower had defeated the Daesh in the sparsely populated desert areas of Syria. Raqqa, which the Daesh had declared as the capital of its so-called emirate, is now under YPG and U.S. control.

The Turkish army has launched attacks on Syrian territory to dislodge the YPG and its allies in a few towns. The Turkish government is, however, careful to avoid a direct conflict with the U.S. forces enmeshed with the YPG forces in Syria. To justify continued U.S. presence on Syrian territory, the Donald Trump administration says that U.S. forces are still engaged in combating the Daesh. There are allegations that the Americans are not serious about completely eliminating the Daesh threat so that they can continue with their unauthorised military presence in Syria. U.S. special forces and the Turkish army are operating on Syrian territory without the permission of the government in Damascus. At this juncture, for reasons of their own, the governments in Ankara and Damascus would like to see the back of the American military in the region.

Relations with Washington were already on the downslide in the last years of the Obama administration. Erdogan has further angered the Trump administration by refusing to implement sanctions it wants imposed on Iran. The Turkish government has said that it will continue to import Iranian gas and continue trading with Iran. The two countries share a common border, and the Turkish economy is heavily reliant on the comparatively cheap energy from Iran. The Trump administration evidently decided to up the ante in the brewing crisis with its NATO ally in July by raking up the issue of an arrested American pastor, Andrew Brunson. The evangelical preacher was arrested in the wake of the attempted military coup and has been accused of being a supporter of the Gulenist movement. More that 50,000 people, among them journalists, army officers, teachers and judges, have been incarcerated since the coup attempt. Many of those arrested have dual nationalities. Many German Turks arrested in the sweep were set free after behind-the-scenes diplomatic negotiations between Berlin and Ankara.

With the crucial midterm elections approaching in the U.S., a politically beleaguered Trump, in an attempt to fire up his evangelical base, made the release of the pastor a prestige issue. According to reports, Erdogan was prepared to do a deal. He wanted the release of a leading Turkish banker, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, in exchange for freeing the pastor. Atilla is the deputy CEO of Turkey’s state-owned Halkbank. The U.S. government has charged him with committing bank fraud and violating U.S. sanctions. Atilla faces a maximum jail term of 20 years. Preet Bharara, an Obama administration appointee, had led the investigations. Atilla was arrested at the New York airport as he and his family disembarked from a flight from Turkey on their way to a holiday in Disneyland in Florida.

At the NATO summit in July, Trump and Erdogan apparently agreed to the simultaneous release of the two to defuse the growing bilateral tensions. For reasons that are not yet clear, the Trump administration changed its mind and instead demanded that Turkey immediately release the pastor or face severe consequences. Erdogan’s refusal to countenance Trump’s unilateral demand, despite threats of punitive sanctions emanating from Washington, has led to the most serious face-off between the two countries as yet. The Turkish authorities arrested about 20 American citizens after the coup attempt, but the Trump administration’s focus has been on the release of the pastor. He has been kept in relative comfort under house arrest, leading Turks to speculate that he is a Central Intelligence Agency asset.

After it became clear that Erdogan would not bend, the Trump administration imposed sanctions. It was the first time that such severe U.S. sanctions were imposed on a close military ally. The Turkish economy has been teetering for some time, with the value of the lira going down steadily. The sanctions have made a bad situation worse. Erdogan’s critics argue that the economic policies he instituted laid the groundwork for the current dismal economic scenario. His government borrowed heavily to fund grandiose projects. The currency has lost 40 per cent of its value since February. Until last year, after Turkey came under AK Party rule, the economy had been growing at a steady pace of 3-5 per cent every year. The quality of life of the people had no doubt improved under AK Party rule.

Turkish Minister of Treasury and Finance Berat Albayrak, who also happens to be Erdogan’s son-in-law, has been insisting that the current turbulence in the economy is transitory. He said that Turkey would emerge stronger after the currency fluctuations. Erdogan has imposed counter sanctions on the U.S. and called on his countrymen to boycott American goods. He has also been saying that Turkey is looking out for new allies and new markets. Qatar has pledged to invest $15 billion directly in the Turkish economy. Turkey has sided with Qatar in its conflict with Saudi Arabia and sent troops to the emirate. All the same, many observers of the region are of the view that the present standoff between the U.S. and Turkey is “a storm in a teacup”. There is very little likelihood of Turkey walking out of NATO or striking up a political or military alliance with Russia or China. Turkey is deeply embedded in the Western military alliance and has strong economic ties with the European Union.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor