US-Turkey relations going south
The fact that there was no mention of Turkey in the latest U.S. National Security Strategy, announced on Dec. 18, was considered something positive by decision-makers in Ankara. They had been worried that if Turkey was mentioned it could be with negative references.
That is because on Dec. 12, President Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser, General HR McMaster, said during a think tank event that Turkey and Qatar have become the “main sponsors” of “extremist Islamic ideologies targeting the West.” There were concerns that this could have been included in the latest U.S. strategy document.
Ankara had strongly reacted to McMaster’s statement, citing Turkey’s fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and al-Qaeda in Syria, Iraq and Turkey. Hundreds of people have been killed in terrorist attacks by those groups in Turkey up to today. The day after the reaction from Ankara, McMaster’s office issued a statement stressing that the U.S. was “committed to its strategic partnership with Turkey to bring stability to the region and defeat terrorism in all its forms.”
The statement also said the U.S. appreciated “Turkey’s efforts to increase its border security, stem the flow of foreign fighters through its territory and fight on the ground to clear [ISIL] from key towns in Syria.”
So Turkish officials were relieved to not find any reference to Ankara in the security strategy document of its strategic partner. It is possible to take the first remarks of McMaster as showing his real thoughts, despite the later lip service and potential erasing of any reference to Turkey in the written document. Or it is possible to take the second remarks at face value, rewinding and deleting his first statements as if Turkey-U.S. relations are currently excellent.
They are not. Relations between Ankara and Washington are currently going through one of their worst periods ever, if not the worst.
It is not just the ongoing Iran sanctions case in New York, in which Iranian-Turkish citizen Reza Zarrab’s witness-turned-defendant statements aim to punish Turkish public lender Halkbank, possibly hoping to find President Tayyip Erdoğan behind it. It is not just the lack of legal steps taken against Fethullah Gülen, a Pennsylvania-based Islamist preacher indicted in Turkey for masterminding the July 2016 coup attempt. It is not just the ongoing collaboration of the U.S. Central Command (in which McMaster served for many years) with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), despite Turkey’s objections as the YPG is the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which is also designated a terrorist group by the U.S. It is not just the continued arrest of American Evangelist pastor Andrew Brunson and two Turkish citizen employees of U.S. consulates over alleged links with the Gülenists and the PKK. And it is not only because of the ongoing visa crisis between the two “strategic partners.”
It is a combination of all these factors, compounding a general lack of trust between the Turkish and American governments. Perhaps this is not the case for Erdoğan and Trump personally, but it is certainly valid for both governments. The U.S.’s recent recognition of Jerusalem as the “undivided” capital of Israel has added yet another cause of confrontation in relations between the two.
But despite what some in Ankara think, it is not good news that Turkey was not mentioned in the new U.S. National Security Strategy. It is also a shame that those victims of ISIL terrorist attacks in Turkey were not mentioned either. The document may not have made any negative reference to the U.S.’s NATO member ally, but it is still not good news that the White House opted to not mention Turkey at all. After all, McMaster’s remarks a few days prior to the release of the document gave a clearer idea about the current perspective on Turkey in the Washington beltway, regardless of whether it was subsequently walked back (possibly due to Trump’s personal intervention).
Trump’s national security strategy is summarized in the phrase “America first,” in line with his election promise to “Make America great again.”
Erdoğan said on Dec. 20 that it was natural for the U.S. to put its own priorities first, which is what Turkey must also do. But the two sides neglecting each other’s needs will also not produce positive results. Turkey-U.S. relations are steadily going south; a diplomatic path must be found to try to normalize them before causing worse consequences.