The US says it is not troubled by Turkey’s rise to prominence
Last year around this time, many in Ankara and government officials were very hopeful that the election of Donald Trump as the new president of the United States would work in the best interests of Turkey with the projection that the new administration would be more cooperative in the extradition of Fethullah Gülen and on Turkey’s concerns over the role of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria.
In the first days and months of Trump’s presidency, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had preferred to blame former U.S. President Barack Obama and some leftovers from his administration in the service of the current government, particularly on issues regarding Syria.
However, Erdoğan’s meeting with Trump on May 16, 2017 showed that using Obama as a scapegoat was a futile effort. It was Trump who signed a presidential decree for officially delivering weapons to the YPG despite the Turkish government’s consecutive warnings, just a week before his meeting with Erdoğan at the White House. Again, it was Trump’s administration who did not even move its finger on Turkey’s demand for the extradition of Fethullah Gülen.
The outlook of bilateral ties between the two countries was worsened in recent months because of ongoing court cases in both countries, restrictions of visa proceedings and tensions on Jerusalem. Yet, there is not much hope that this picture will soon be reversed in 2018.
“We tend to focus a lot on crises, drama and tension in the relationship. But there are also positive aspects of the Turkish-American partnership,” a senior U.S. official recently told me while speaking on troubled bilateral ties.
The cooperation on the fight against terror, joint steps to strengthen economic and trade ties are some examples of the everyday engagement of American diplomats, law enforcement, military and intelligence with their Turkish counterparts, the official explained.
US welcomes Turkey’s rise
But he also added that he was not making this point to deny or obscure very serious issues in bilateral ties. “Turkey and the U.S. do not have to agree on everything,” the official continued.
However, he wanted to clarify one very important point:
“From time to time, we hear people say ‘the U.S. is putting pressure on Turkey because it is troubled by Turkey’s rise as a regional power.’ From my perspective, that is 180 degrees away from reality. The fact that Turkey is becoming an economic power house, a regional power, potentially a global power and a soft power in terms of economics, are all positive for a country that has been an ally of the U.S. for a longtime. We welcome and encourage Turkey’s rise to prominence and its confidence in the global scene.”
For the official, the ongoing disagreements between Turkey and the U.S. could be categorized under two titles:
Some of the issues that have led to tension are because of clear cut policy differences—the Jerusalem issue for example—but some others are because of “misunderstanding, suspicion and cynicism.” The arrest of Metin Topuz, a local employee at the U.S. Consulate-General in Istanbul, seems to be the best example of the latter, in the eyes of the U.S. official. The same things can be argued for the ongoing case of Attila vs. the U.S., in which Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Sarrab stands as a witness over claims that Turkey violated U.S. sanctions on Iran.
“Clearly, there are legal cases in both countries that have become a key topic of conversation and in some ways, of tension between the two countries. That is undeniable. So, I think the U.S. and Turkey, at the governmental level, are working very hard to ensure that individual legal cases do not derail political partnership. I am confident our partnership will survive,” the official stated.
Media leaks a matter of concern
The Topuz case will sure be a lingering issue between the two countries in the next year. The official repeated the well-known U.S. position on the case with hopes that Turkish authorities and courts will reach the conclusion that Topuz and local employees had not been involved in any improper behavior, criminal or terrorist activities.
Turkish and American officials are in constant dialogue on this issue, the official recalled, expressing one specific concern of the latter side:
“I will say that one of the things that concerns us is that we still see stories in the Turkish media that seem based on leaks, out of security services, offering what seem questionable interpretations to us on the actions of our local staff. We would prefer not to try these cases in the media. We would prefer to be able to have private conversations between the two governments to resolve these issues. And that is underway,” said the official.
‘Visa limitations not a new normal’
One other aspect of troubled ties is the U.S. decision to limit the number of visa applications at the U.S. diplomatic missions in Turkey due to security reasons following Topuz’s arrest.
Revealing that the backlog on routine tourist visa applications recently developed and is now 13 months, the official admitted that this is not convenient.
“We know that. This is not meant to be the new normal. When the two governments are engaged very energetically in discussions about the visa situation and related security issues, we hope to resolve and return to normal visa processing by both countries. Because as you know, the Turkish government is also limiting visa processing for American citizens,” the official said.
Concerns in the US Congress over Turkey ties
The backlog of troubled matters between the two countries also includes Washington’s unwillingness to extradite Gülen, Turkey’s purchase of S-400 ballistic missiles and the ongoing case in New York that could bring about a sanction against some Turkish banks.
“I remain optimistic about the long term relationship between the two countries,” the official stressed, underlining the need for communication to resolve problems. However, the official also admitted that the U.S. Congress is also at unease over ties with Turkey.
“There is a lot of concern in the Congress about certain aspects of the relationship now. Most prominently including the fact that certain American citizens have been arrested or detained under the state of emergency, under conditions that have led to a lot of concern about due process. So, the Congress cares about that,” the official added.
It should also be recalled that Turkey’s purchase of S-400s from Russia could turn out to be a matter for the U.S. Congress on the grounds that it would allegedly violate a recently approved U.S. sanctions bill on Russia.
“It is a topic of discussion. Because there is legislation that might turn out to be relevant to this, depending on what happens. Again, Turkey is free to do whatever it can, but we feel an obligation to make sure the Turkish government makes an informed decision, whichever direction it takes,” the official said on Turkey’s missile procurement plans.
It is no doubt that all these issues will linger throughout 2018 and will continue to be a risk for the nature of the decades-old partnership between Turkey and the U.S. The course of this relationship will depend on the ability of both governments in resolving imminent problems before they turn out to be frozen conflicts.