Good news follows bad news in Turkey–US relations
“The U.S. has dropped charges against 11 of the 15 bodyguards for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who were indicted after a brawl with protesters outside the country’s embassy in Washington last May, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney in DC told CNN on Thursday,” read the CNN news report published on March 22.
“President Trump is granting more exemptions to his steel and aluminum tariffs,” read another report on the same day on the financial section of the CNN website. However, Turkey was not included in the list of countries – comprised of the EU, Argentina, Brazil, South Korea and Australia - that will not be subject to trade penalties imposed by the Trump administration.
Nothing illustrates the current state of affairs in Turkey–U.S. relations better than these two issues.
The first news was met in Ankara with a sense of relief and perceived as a good gesture from Washington aiming to slow down the collision course in relations. But the second intensified frustration in Ankara over its failure to persuade U.S. decision makers.
Trump has announced on March 1 that imported steel would be taxed at 25 percent and foreign aluminum at 10 percent. This rang alarm bells in Turkey because the country is the U.S.’s sixth biggest provider of steel. Ankara immediately started lobbying activities in Washington via its embassy and representatives of the business community. But neither the letter sent by Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekçi to his American counterpart nor the threat by Erdoğan’s advisor that Turkey could retaliate by imposing tariffs on cotton imported from the U.S. managed to secure an exemption.
Although the tariff went into effect as of last Friday, the Turkish side still seems confident that Washington can be convinced to reverse its decision and keep Turkey out of the tariffs. One of the reasons for this confidence stems from the nature of bilateral economic relations. Trump is taking measures claiming that current trade conditions work against U.S. interests, but the U.S. has a trade surplus with Turkey. Ironically, Boeing’s statement that together with Turkish Airlines it has finalized “a firm order for 25 787-9 Dreamliners, with options for five more airplanes” came on March 12 (11 days after Trump’s decision on steel tariffs).
Another reason for optimism is the sensitive nature of political relations. There are so many headaches on the political front that some pundits in Turkey do not think the U.S. will be keen to add another nuisance to the already tense relationship. This optimism is strengthened by what some see as positive signs on the political front such as the dropping of charges against Erdoğan’s bodyguards.
There is also talk of growing concern in Washington about the increasingly close relationship between Russia and Turkey, prompting some to question whether the U.S.’s policies have pushed Turkey toward Russia and Iran and to what degree this suits U.S. interests.
Meanwhile, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım recently confirmed rumors that Turkey is considering buying U.S. patriots. This is obviously part of an effort to avert possible imposition of sanctions as part of a law called the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which could be resorted to in reaction to Turkey’s purchasing of Russian S- 400 missile systems.
When it comes to regional issues, although the two sides have not solved their outstanding differences on the Syrian front there seems to be progress on the Iraq front. Ankara has been pushing the U.S. administration to exert pressure on Baghdad to take action against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and not only did Turkey’s latest cross border military incursion not draw a strong reaction from Baghdad, there are now reports that the central government has moved against the PKK stronghold of Sinjar. It would not be a surprise if both operations are being conducted with the support of intelligence provided by the Americans.
On Syria, mechanisms established with former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had raised hopes that the Ankara-Washington crisis could be contained. Tillerson’s departure, together with National Security Adviser HR McMaster, and their replacement by two well-known hawks, may have dashed those hopes. Turkey–U.S. relations thus continue to have a sweet and sour taste, and those dealing with the issue are becoming ever more frustrated.