Syria to remain priority over Jerusalem in US ties
A quick overview of U.S.-Turkish relations in 2019 will reveal the consolidation of two trends.
The first trend is about the erosion of confidence among the two longtime allies. There has been a momentary loss of confidence, ups and downs in the past as well. But mutual trust would rather be relatively quickly restored.
This time it is taking a longer time, and, in fact, the erosion in mutual trust is getting bigger. As a result, a few issues have been paralyzing every dimension of the relations: Syria, Russian rapprochement and FETÖ.
We have not heard frequently about Turkey’s complaints about FETÖ last year. But it still remains as the big elephant in the room. Turkey’s ruling elites have probably lost hope in securing the extradition of the FETÖ leader Fetullah Gülen, who resides in the United States. Some might also understand the legal limitations.
But the fact that they cannot see a genuine effort to curb the activities of FETÖ in the United States stands as the key factor preventing the restoration of trust.
FETÖ’s continuation of its anti-Turkish activities in America reinforces the belief among the ruling elites that “a terror organization that tried to topple the Justice and Development Party [AK Party] government and even planned to kill its leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan” is being protected by the U.S. administration.
The memory of F-16s dropping bombs over the Turkish Parliament and other institutions is no doubt behind Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia.
The conviction that the coup attempt was orchestrated by a U.S. resident cleric and Washington was slow to react against Russia’s immediate show of solidarity should never be forgotten when analyzing the relations in the Ankara-Washington-Moscow triangle.
However, the Russian rapprochement came with a price tag: The purchase of the Russian S-400 anti-ballistic missiles. But there is a double cost to it, since Washington has reacted to the purchase by excluding Turkey from the joint production of new generation aircraft F35’s, but also by threatening sanctions.
The delivery of the first parts took place last summer and the S-400s are now uncontestably the key issue hijacking relations, in which Washington expects Ankara to compromise.
The other issue paralyzing relations in which Turkey expects Washington to compromise is Syria. The insistence of the U.S. intelligence and army units to see the YPG as its key ally in northeastern Syria aggravates the loss of confidence from the Turkish perspective since the YPG is seen as the illegal PKK’s wing in Syria.
The close cooperation between what Turkey sees as its existential enemy and its longtime ally and the transfer of heavy armaments to the YPG with the argument that it will use them against ISIL has exacerbated the irritation in Ankara.
Turkey’s military operation into northeast Syria has helped convince U.S. president Trump to pull American soldiers from the region. This decision came despite strong resistance from the U.S. establishment and as long as the cooperation between the U.S. and YPG forces continue, Syria will continue to paralyze the other aspects of relations.
And this brings us to the second trend that is consolidating in U.S.-Turkish relations: The dialogue between Trump and Erdoğan becoming the main driving force of the relations.
Trump seems to have delivered in Syria, and recent information reveals that he has also stepped in favor of Turkey in the Halkbank case, the Turkish state-owned bank expected to be fined by U.S. courts over Iran sanction-busting allegations.
Ironically, however, Trump and Erdoğan happen to stand on the opposite sides in an issue that is very close to the heart of the Turkish president: The Palestine issue.
Trump is the most pro-Israeli president the U.S. has ever seen and Erdoğan is the most pro-Palestinian leader Turkey has ever seen.
While one should expect a strong reaction against Trump’s so-called Middle East peace plan, it would be wrong to anticipate this would poison the air between Trump and Erdoğan.
And, at the end of the day, there is not much Turkey can do. It had called back its ambassador to Tel Aviv when the U.S. moved its embassy to Jerusalem in 2018.
So, there is no ambassador to call back from Tel Aviv. At that time Turkey’s Washington ambassador was also called back for consultations. It would be surprising to see a similar move. After all, when the U.S. moved its embassy in May, Turkey was one month away from presidential and general elections of June 2018.
Recently, Turkey is not in an election period, and despite Turkey’s official rhetoric of “Jerusalem is our red line,” there are many other important regional red lines.