Turkey-US relations remain fraught

US-Turkey relations have seen a downward trend in recent times with little chance of improvement in near future. (Reuters)
Updated 06 March 2019

Turkey-US relations remain fraught

  • Tension to continue as the latest developments are ‘ringing the alarm bell,’ experts warn
  • Ankara has a critical place in the F-35 program as some parts of the jets are built in Turkey

ANKARA: Tensions between the US and Turkey will continue in the near future, with the latest developments “ringing the alarm bell,” experts warn.

Since October 2018, when a Turkish court permitted Pastor Andrew Brunson to return to the US after a two-year sentence, relations have still not reached their optimal level. 

Despite high-level talks over recent weeks, Washington has showed little inclination to accept Ankara’s demand to establish a 32-km safe zone under Turkish control on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River in Syria after the US announced its withdrawal from the area. 

The negotiations have not yet led to an agreement and Turkish President Erdogan recently criticized the US over its delay after Turkey demanded US support for the withdrawal of the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia from the region. 

However, in January, Trump threatened to “devastate” the Turkish economy if the country attacked Kurdish forces supported by the US against Daesh, despite Turkey’s strong objections.

The recent visit of US First Lady Melania Trump to a Gulen-movement-linked charter school in Oklahoma on Tuesday also sparked intense debate in Turkey and is likely to further antagonize relations between the two allies. 

Ankara believes that the Gulen movement masterminded a failed coup attempt in the country in 2016, and Turkey formally requested the extradition of its US-based leader Fethullah Gulen three years ago.

From a bilateral trade perspective, Washington announced on Monday its plan to remove Turkey from its list of countries with duty-free access, claiming that Turkey “is sufficiently economically developed.” The preferential trade treatment has allowed some exports to enter the US on a duty-free basis. 

However, Turkey’s weakening economy, set against the backdrop of a steep drop in the Turkish currency, is likely to be undermined by this decision. Turkey was the fifth-largest supplier to the US with a share of 8.2 percent of goods. The US imported about $20.9 billion of goods under this preferential scheme in the first 11 months of 2018, according to official figures. 

The escalatory moves did not stop there. On Tuesday, top US General Curtis Scaparrotti said that the US should not sell F-35 fighter jets to Turkey, a NATO ally, if Ankara purchases the Russian S-400 long-range air defense system. 

Ankara has a critical place in the F-35 program as some parts of the jets are built in Turkey. Turkey had refused to meet the Feb. 15 deadline set by the US to cancel the purchase of the S-400 system. 

The US had been trying to convince Turkey to buy the Patriot system instead, which is compatible with the NATO defense system. Washington had warned Turkey over possible US sanctions against those who engage in business ties with the Russian defense industry if the purchase was made. 

Ali Cinar, a US-based foreign policy expert, said that the lack of trust between Turkey and Washington is likely to continue in 2019, especially in the light of the S-400 issue. 

“I don’t expect further deterioration. However, we will see ups and downs in the relationship. An unstable Turkey does not benefit the strategic interests of the US and Turkey, nor does it serve peace and stability in a region already devastated by volatility,” he told Arab News. 

He thinks that the partnership between the US and the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia will further strain ties. 

But according to Cinar, the two countries do not have the luxury of losing their friendship, and high-level meetings between American and Turkish officials should serve as an opportunity to repair it. 

David Satterfield, who has held top posts at US missions in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt and Lebanon, was recently appointed by the White House as the US ambassador in Ankara. The post has been vacant since October 2017 when the former American ambassador left the country amid a visa crisis between Washington and Ankara. 

According to Mehmet Ali Tugtan, an expert on transatlantic relations from Istanbul Bilgi University, the main controversy arises from Turkey being allied to two great powers who are engaged in strategic rivalry. 

“At some point, you reach the limits of playing one side against the other,” he told Arab News. 

“If Turkey acquires both S-400s and F-35s, she would possess area denial capability to both Russia and the US — not to mention her European allies,” Tugtan said. “In F-35 she would also possess a formidable power projection capability against her regional neighbors.”

Tugtan said that the US does not want Turkey to have these capabilities at a time when the alliance  between the two countries is in doubt. 

“So, the typical US approach in cases like these is a combination of positive gestures, such as the Patriot offer, threats like denying the F-35s, sanctions like the removal from the preferential trade regime and symbolic warnings like the Melania Trumps visit,” he said. 

“Although there is no immediate threat of a flare-up, Turkish-US relations are unlikely to rise above this low ebb in the foreseeable future,” Tugtan said. 

Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Ankara office director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, thinks that recent developments in US-Turkey relations indicate a perfect storm similar to the one witnessed last summer. 

“If short-termism prevails over long-term strategic thinking, the vulnerability of US-Turkey relations, emanating from the lack of a relevant strategic framework, mutual distrust and ownership problem could crystallize,” he told Arab News. 

For Unluhisarcikli, coinciding with weakening links between the EU and Turkey, further deterioration of relations with the US could put Turkey on a path away from the West. 

“This situation is not easily reversible unless there is a strong political will on both sides to do so,” he said.

Al-Sistani calls for new election law as two more protesters killed in Baghdad

Updated 33 sec ago

Al-Sistani calls for new election law as two more protesters killed in Baghdad

  • Al-Sistani emphasized support for the demonstrators in his weekly religious sermon
  • His comments came as protesters called for large protests to take place on Friday

BAGHDAD: Iraq’s most influential Shiite religious leader called Friday for a new election law that would restore public confidence in the system and give voters the opportunity to bring “new faces” to power as two protesters were killed in ongoing confrontations with security forces in a central Baghdad square.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani emphasized support for the demonstrators in his weekly religious sermon, saying none of their demands have been met so far and that electoral reform should be a priority.
His comments came as two protesters were killed when police fired live ammunition and tear gas at hundreds of protesters who removed concrete barriers and streamed into Khilani Square, which has been at the center of clashes for the past days.
Friday’s deaths brought to three the number of protesters killed in the past 24 hours.
At least 320 people have been killed and thousands have been wounded since the unrest began on Oct. 1, when protesters took to the streets in the tens of thousands outraged by what they said was widespread corruption, lack of job opportunities and poor basic services despite the country’s oil wealth.
The latest clashes broke out late Thursday in Baghdad’s Khilani Square, according to Iraqi medical and security officials who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. The violence erupted hours after demonstrators celebrated Iraq’s 2-1 World Cup qualifier win over Iran.
Demonstrations have mostly been taking place in Baghdad’s Tahrir and Khilani squares and the predominantly Shiite southern provinces, following tough measures by Iraqi security forces to calm down on protests.
The powerful cleric, who’s opinion holds major sway over Iraqis, said a fair electoral law should give voters the ability to replace current political leaders with “new faces.”
“Passing a law that does not give such an opportunity to voters would be unacceptable and useless,” he said in his weekly sermon Friday.
“If those in power think they can evade dealing with real reform by procrastination, they are mistaken,” Al-Sistani said. “What comes after the protests is not the same as before, so be careful,” he warned.
He said corruption among the ruling elite has reached “unbearable limits” while large segments of the population are finding it increasingly impossible to have their basic needs met while top leaders “share the country’s wealth among themselves and disregard each other’s corruption.”
“People did not go out to demonstrations calling for reform in this unprecedented way, and do not continue to do so despite the heavy price and grave sacrifices it requires, except because they found no other way to revolt against the corruption which is getting worse day after day, and the rampant deterioration on all fronts,” he said.
On Monday, Al-Sistani said he backed a roadmap by the UN mission in Iraq aimed at meeting the demands of the protesters, but expressed concern that political parties were not serious about carrying out the proposed reforms.