One week and 3.5 contention points with Washington
Turkey-U.S. relations, which have already been on a rough patch primarily because of Washington’s partnership with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria, loaded additional stress on three – possibly four – fronts in only a week’s time. First contention point popped when the U.S. Joints Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford came out against Ankara’s preparations to purchase the Russian S-400 air defense system.
In fact, Dunford’s statements at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado would puzzle one’s brains. Despite clear words from Fikri Işık on the matter, who was the Defense Minister until last week, Dunford referred to “incorrect media reports,” disregarding the fact that the source of those media reports was a Turkish government official. “They have not bought the S-400 air defense system from Russia. That would be a concern, were they to do that, but they have not done that,” he said.
When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan responded to Dunford, saying, “God willing, we’ll see them in our country soon,” Washington issued further statements reminding Ankara that the NATO allies agreed in 2016 Warsaw Summit to move away from Russian sourced weapons. Meanwhile, determined messages kept coming from Ankara. One even had a skylarking tone: “If our ally is that concerned about Turkey’s purchase of the S-400, we can always ‘change its name’ to make them feel better,” wrote a senior advisor to Erdoğan, Gülnur Aybet, on Twitter.
Washington probably keeps the pressure alive with reminiscence of Turkey’s last minute pulling out of talks to buy the Chinese HQ-9 air defense system in 2015. While Ankara blatantly signals it might intensify military cooperation with Moscow if the U.S. continues working with the YPG after the liberation of Raqqa.
The lack of mutual trust between the militaries of the two countries surfaced in a second contention point very shortly after the fray on S-400s. An article published by the state-run Anadolu Agency displaying the exact locations of 10 U.S. bases in Syria was received by deep suspicion by Pentagon that Turkish officials might have leaked the critical information. Ankara unequivocally rejected the claims. Pentagon eventually decided not to issue a formal statement because they could not confirm the source, but DOD officials told journalists that if the leaks came from a NATO ally this would be very concerning. The fury over the Anadolu Agency article demonstrates the U.S. military does not exclude the possibility that Ankara might hit below the belt in Syria.
The third contention point between Washington and Ankara was rather surprising for those of us who have been covering the State Department under President Donald Trump. The tone of U.S. statements over the controversial decisions of Turkish courts and extreme implementations of state of emergency laws got milder after Barack Obama left the White House. Almost the first bold statement from a spokesperson of the State Department on Turkey in the first six months of the Trump administration came on Thursday on the trial of journalists and executives from daily Cumhuriyet over terror charges.
Heather Nauert told us that the U.S. believes journalists and others are being held arbitrarily under the government’s state of emergency and urged the Turkish government to release them. She also disclosed her recent phone conversation with Ambassador John Bass in Ankara referring to his previous visit to the newspaper’s headquarters as an open sign of solidarity with Cumhuriyet journalists. Nauert’s use of the word “arbitrarily” for arrests and detentions under the state of emergency will most likely raise eyebrows in Ankara. After all, Erdoğan had slammed some European diplomats for attending a court hearing of Can Dündar and Erdem Gül of Cumhuriyet last year.
Last but not the least is Erdoğan’s call on Muslims worldwide to “defend Al-Aqsa” as a response to the Israeli government’s controversial implementation of metal detectors at the site. This might have not resulted in public expressions of contention by U.S. officials yet. However, Erdoğan reverting back to an anti-Israeli rhetoric would definitely further weaken the hand of his very few friends left in Washington.