Turkey-US relations worsen amid secret diplomacy
A United States court found Turkish public lender Halkbank’s executive Hakan Atilla “guilty” on Jan. 3 for breaking U.S. sanctions on Iran. Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan’s spokesman İbrahim Kalın denounced the verdict as “scandalous” on Jan. 4.
The majority of the Turkish public considers the court case to be a “weak” one, possibly even manipulated from the outset, not least because Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab pleaded guilty and went from being a suspect to a witness in the case.
Another reason is that prosecutors presented Hüseyin Korkmaz as a witness in the case, a person who has admitted receiving $50,000 from the Federal Bureau of Investigation after delivering Turkish documents to U.S. officials. Korkmaz is a former Turkish police officer who faces an arrest warrant in Turkey over his alleged links to Fethullah Gülen, the U.S.-based Islamist cleric accused of masterminding the July 15, 2016 coup attempt in Turkey.
The verdict has put another brick in the wall of problems between the two NATO allies, Turkey and the U.S. There are already two major problems with a series of minor problems in between. One major issue is Gülen’s presence in the U.S. and his continuing activities, despite demands from Turkey for legal action by the U.S.
Another major problem is the U.S. military’s collaboration with the Syrian branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), despite Turkey’s offer for cooperation. The lesser problems include the arrests of American pastor Andrew Brunson and two Turkish employees of the American diplomatic mission in Turkey, as well as U.S. arrest warrants against President Erdoğan’s body guards for forcibly dispersing a crowd of protestors while he had been in Washington D.C. to meet U.S. President Donald Trump.
A further sign of the existing tension between the two countries is the confrontation caused by Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and Erdoğan’s efforts to motivate the international community against it, contributing to the political defeat of the U.S. in a vote by the United Nations.
Amid growing tension, Ankara and Washington have been attempting secret diplomacy in order to save relations from further deterioration. No details have emerged concerning the actors of that secret diplomacy. But then again, neither has there been any categorical denial.
In line with these embryonic efforts, Erdoğan gave Trump a between-the-lines message during his public address on Dec. 30 in the northern town of Kastamonu. “As we work with Russia and Iran in Syria, so too would we like to work with the U.S. We do not hesitate to respond to anyone who takes a step towards us. There is no problem between us that we cannot solve,” he said.
Well, that was before the U.S. courts delivered a slamming verdict on Jan. 4. Presidential spokesman İbrahim Kalın has not yet complained to the U.S. administration. In a recent press conference, he said the verdict was not final and that Ankara expected to go to the court of appeals.
When asked about the Russian S-400 missile systems purchase amid U.S. objections, Kalın said there would be no need to buy Russian missiles if negotiations to purchase the American Patriot missiles were able to proceed. “We have air defense needs,” he said.
The nuance in those two remarks shows that Ankara is being more cautious with issues that impact on Turkish-U.S. relations.
That doesn’t mean that Turkish-U.S. relations can be put back on track easily. One official source said on condition of anonymity that relations are “on a knife’s edge.” But it seems there are people on both the Turkish and American sides who are willing to reanimate the relations.