Turkey and the US before a Dark Tunnel

Wednesday, 1 January, 2020 - 13:45

Turkey and the US before a Dark Tunnel

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Robert Ford
Robert Ford is a former US ambassador to Syria and Algeria and a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute for Near East Policy in Washington

I didn’t expect the United States to do anything to help Idlib in its struggle against the savage Syrian and Russian attack but last summer I thought Turkey might respond. In fact, Ankara has taken no concrete actions despite the encirclement of some of its soldiers at the observation post at al-Surnan in southwestern Idleb. We have to be realistic, however. Ankara alone cannot save Idlib, and Moscow and Damascus are taking advantage of Turkey’s isolation.


It is worth mentioning that relations between Ankara and Washington are the worst I remember in the 35 years since I worked in Turkey in my first diplomatic job. Last week President Trump signed the annual Defense Department budget legislation from Congress. The new defense budget law stops delivery of F-35 fighters to Turkey and halts Turkish companies’ participation in production of the F-35 aircraft.


Eliminating Turkish companies’ participation is a big blow against Turkey’s effort to build a modern defense industry. Ankara has succeeded in an impossible political mission in Washington. It united Democrats and Republicans. The two parties voted together in the Congress to recognize that Turkey committed an act of genocide against the Armenians in 1915. For decades Armenian supporters wanted this resolution from Congress, and lobbyists for Turkey resisted it. In the 1980s and 1990s, the American military helped Turkey to stop draft legislation in Congress against Turkey. Now, the American military like the Congress is angry about northeastern Syria and also the S-400 deal. Without anyone to help the Turkish ambassador efforts in Washington, the Armenia genocide resolution passed with big majorities.


The crisis in the bilateral relationship is not only inside the two capitals. Last week the American organization Pew Research published results of its new survey of Turkish public opinion. According to the survey, only 2 percent of Turks thought that the United States is Turkey’s best ally. Forty six percent thought that the United States is the biggest threat to Turkey. Meanwhile, only 6 percent of the Turks in the survey thought that Russia is Turkey’s biggest threat. And a public opinion survey last month in the United States showed that only 26 percent of Americans think that Turkey is an ally or a friend, but 44 percent thought that Turkey is an enemy or unfriendly.


These two countries are NATO allies?


I visited Ankara earlier in December, and I heard some hope that perhaps the bilateral relationship might begin to improve. President Trump has many political problems in Washington, but he wants to prevent further damage to relations with Turkey. In addition, President Trump pulled American soldiers out of Syrian Kurdish cities and now US forces are centered around a few Syrian oilfields south of the Syrian Kurdish region.


My optimism about the strategic relationship between Ankara and Washington didn’t last very long after I learned about possible new American sanctions.


The defense budget law calls upon Trump to impose additional sanctions against Turkey because of the S-400 deal. In addition, there is new Congressional draft legislation that would impose an arms embargo on Turkey, including the possibility of imposing sanctions on foreign companies that sell arms to Turkey. The Congress also aims to impose sanctions on Turkish officials and in addition to require the State Department to publish a report about the financial situation of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s family.


Erdogan has warned that Turkey will retaliate with its own sanctions and perhaps will eject the American military from its base at Incirlik, but the Americans think they can deploy military aircraft to bases in other allied countries. Aron Stein, a well-informed analyst in Washington, recommends that Trump impose small financial sanctions on Turkey now in order to satisfy Congress before Congress imposes bigger sanctions later. It is important to remember that Trump can’t fight a domestic political war on behalf of Turkish relations when he needs support from the Republican Party that wants to punish Turkey.


Turkey’s latest intervention with Libya will make the Washington problem even more difficult.


The United States supports efforts by Cyprus, Greece, Israel and Egypt to create a natural gas network in the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey responded by agreeing with the Libyan Government of National Accord in Tripoli to assert together wide maritime border claims to block development of gas fields and pipelines near Cyprus. We can have some sympathy for the Turkish ambassador trying to convince Congress to be neutral about the natural gas dispute when he competes against the political allies of Israel and Greece in Washington. In the end, Syria and Idlib are only one problem that Ankara faces without any true friends.


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