By Endy Zemenides
On the eve of the latest legislation in the United States House of Representatives putting pressure on Turkey over its S-400 missile system purchase, Nicholas Danforth – a veteran Turkey analyst at the German Marshall Fund – posted a warning on Twitter that perfectly captured the dilemma in US-Turkey relations:
“An under-discussed part of the problem in US-Turkish relations is that from Washington’s point of view, none of the policies that infuriate Ankara are actually about Turkey at all... For Washington support for the YPG [mainly-Kurdish militia in Syria] is about ISIS. Not extraditing [Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah] Gulen is a legal issue. The Halkbank investigation was about Iran and even [the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act], to a lesser extent, is about Russia.
“At best, this has led many observers in Turkey to conclude that US policy is driven by some kind of misunderstanding or motiveless malignancy. At worst, it has led many to a more conspiratorial conclusion, namely that all Washington’s stated concerns – [American pastor Andrew] Brunson, the S-400s, even ISIS – are just excuses for implementing a sinister, long-term plan to hurt Turkey.
“In both case, Ankara seems to hope that by showing resolve – the Afrin operation, pushing ahead with the S-400 purchase etc – the US can be convinced to abandon these intentionally or unintentionally hostile policies.
“The problem for Washington, of course, is that now getting tough on Turkey risks further convincing Ankara of America’s underlying hostility, while trying to accommodate Turkey risks convincing Ankara that its aggressive pushback is working.”
The US – from the administration, to Congress, to the think-tank community – have clearly opted for the “getting tough” approach. The resolution “Expressing Concern for the United States-Turkey Alliance” introduced by House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel and Ranking Republican Michael McCaul (which passed unanimously) was just the latest proof.
Provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act, in appropriations legislation, the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act, and the suspension of training for Turkish F-35 pilots have laid down a bright red line: Turkey will have to choose between F-35s and S-400s, and more generally has to decide whether it wants the US to consider it a stalwart ally.
For his part, President Recep Tayyip Erodgan has misplayed the US political system. He has long dismissed critics (and even friends) in the US Congress. When he visited President Barack Obama in 2013 – at a time when US-Turkey relations were quite warm – he managed to become hostile with leading members of Congress, with the late Senator John McCain labeling him one of the most “arrogant” world leaders he’d ever met.
During the present period, Erdogan has been banking on establishing personal rapport with President Donald Trump, or between his son-in-law Berat Albayrak and Jared Kushner. It would have helped if he had read the US Constitution and realized that this is not a parliamentary system. An independent and determined Congress is not who you want to antagonize.
The unanimous passage of this resolution shows that Turkey has managed to achieve something rare in this Congress – bipartisan agreement. The US-Turkey relationship is hurtling toward a cliff, with severe economic and security consequences for the region and the world. Can anything pull it back?
Endy Zemenides is executive director of the Hellenic American Leadership Council.