U.S.-Turkey Relations At Crossroads, As Erdogan Warns Of New Friends In Eastern Places
Turkish president threatens to sever ties with Washington, seek out new allies
In an apparent bid to circumvent the Trump administration and appeal directly to the American public, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan this weekend published an op-ed in the New York Times, titled, “How Turkey Sees the Crisis With the U.S.” In it, he warned that the ongoing dispute between the NATO allies could lead to the dissolution of ties and a shift eastwards by Ankara.
“Washington must give up the misguided notion that our relationship can be asymmetrical and come to terms with the fact that Turkey has alternatives,” Erdogan threatened in his article. “Failure to reverse this trend of unilateralism and disrespect will require us to start looking for new friends and allies.”
The diplomatic row, which has gradually intensified over the years, recently boiled over ostensibly due to Turkey’s detention for nearly two years of American pastor Andrew Brunson. Ankara claims that Brunson has ties to the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has waged a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish government; as well as to the so-called Gulenist movement, which Erdogan blames for a failed coup in 2016.
The Turkish president repeatedly has voiced displeasure over Washington’s tepid response to the attempted mutiny and subsequent refusal to extradite Fethullah Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. Erdogan also has on numerous occasions publicly rued over the U.S.’ cooperation in Syria with the Kurdish YPG, which Ankara views as an extension of the PKK.
For its part, Washington is uneased by Erdogan’s massive crackdown on civil society, accompanied by the progressive Islamization of the country’s institutions; his vocal support for the Muslim Brotherhood—including its Palestinian offshoot, the Hamas terror group in the Gaza Strip—which has been blacklisted by most American allies in the Arab world; and, among other things, his alleged facilitation of the operations of the Islamic State as well as efforts to circumvent U.S. sanctions on behalf of Iran.
The bilateral spat sparked global anxieties when President Donald Trump last Friday hiked tariffs on the import of Turkish aluminum and steel, precipitating the lira’s free-fall. The Turkish currency has plummeted about 20 percent since then, reaching a new low overnight Sunday against the American dollar. This, in turn, has caused shock waves across markets in Europe and Asia, with banks on both continents at risk due to their exposure to Turkey’s economy.
In response, Erdogan accused the White House of waging an economic war against Ankara in the form of an “underhand plot.” This, despite Turkey’s pre-existing poor economic outlook, with inflation in the debt-ridden country at an estimated 15 percent and as investors charge the government with prohibiting the central bank from raising interest rates, perceived as further evidence of creeping authoritarianism.
According to Dr. Christopher Phillips, Associate Fellow at the London-based Chatham House think-tank and an expert on Turkish foreign policy, Erdogan has for years used confrontations with external actors as a means of deflecting blame away from his own internal failings.
“Erdogan clearly has a loyal base,” he related to The Media Line, “which has stuck with him even during a clampdown on civil liberties. The Turkish economy has been struggling for some time, but this also has not detracted from his support. One suspects that Erdogan’s followers will continue to take him at his word when he pins the crisis on Trump, who has shown hostility.”
As such, Dr. Phillips deems it unlikely that Erdogan will reverse course. “An economist would tell him to make amends regarding the American pastor so that the financial penalties go away. This would [mitigate] the immediate shocks and Ankara could then focus on the harder-to-fix problems such as high inflation and deep debt. But this is what happens when power is concentrated in the hands of one person. It would require a huge climb down on Erdogan’s part.”
The question, then, is how far both sides might be willing to go.
“Many leaders are sometimes ready to endure pain in order to achieve something more important to them,” Dr. Alon Liel, formerly the head of Israel’s mission in Turkey and thereafter director general of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, explained to The Media Line. “In this case, Erdogan is willing to damage the economy in order to have Fethullah Gulen extradited, as he views this movement as a threat to Turkey’s future. This extends well beyond the row with the U.S., as Erdogan has arrested tens of thousands of ‘Gulenists’ involved not only in the economy but all aspects of society.”
While Dr. Liel noted that the “U.S. is in every way much stronger than Turkey,” he nevertheless suggests that President Trump may, somewhat paradoxically, be more constrained than his counterpart. “Erdogan is a populist whose regime is stable and there are no elections upcoming. So he can afford politically to have some damage to the economy and he can take things much further. Trump is in a different situation as he has strong democratic opposition and a lot of turmoil surrounding his administration. He also has partial conflicts with Europe, China and a big one with Iran. So I do not know if Trump can afford to lose Turkey.”
Still others believe that this eventuality is, in fact, an inevitability, as Erdogan increasingly transforms Turkey in his own image. Notably, after the U.S. last week imposed sanctions on Ankara, Erdogan’s first call was to Moscow. In fact, Turkey’s long-discussed ascension to the European Union is, in the eyes of many, a less likely outcome today than the country being kicked out of NATO for purchasing Russian air defense systems.
As such, while relations with the U.S. may ultimately superficially improve, it appears that Erdogan’s break from the West is liable to accelerate.