Turkey, US seek better ties despite splits

Turkey, US seek better ties despite splits

The summer of 2018 saw the crisis in Turkish-U.S. relations reach a climax when U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson was not released despite negotiations between Washington and Ankara. His release later had come only as a temporary relief.

It is fair to say that relations remain in a constant state of tension ever since, as the two sides fail to get rid of the irritants

that continue poisoning relations and the challenge is that there are not just one or two, but several irritants. Disagreements over Syria continue despite U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria. Turkey’s demand to let the area under U.S. control pass to the Turkish army is turned down and U.S. soldiers’ willingness to continue its collaboration with the PKK’s Syrian wing, seen as a terror organization by Ankara, will remain the key irritant in the Syrian issue.

The extradition of U.S. resident Fetullah Gülen, accused by Turkey to have masterminded the 2016 failed coup attempt, and the continued detention of Turkish personnel of U.S. missions continue to remain as constant irritants. A new bill introduced recently at Congress to sanction senior Turkish officials involved in these detentions suggests that the issue remains high on the U.S.’s agenda.

While the detention issue had created the storm last summer, the name of the upcoming storm this summer is “S-400.” The U.S. threatens to suspend the delivery of the F-35s and come up with additional sanctions if Turkey will continue ahead with the purchase of the Russian S-400s.

In addition to the overall negative effects of these political problems on the economic situation in Turkey, other irritants remain intact in bilateral economic ties.

The U.S. had doubled tariffs on steel and aluminum imported from Turkey during Brunson’s detention and they remain intact despite Brunson’s release. Meanwhile, Turkey’s exemption period from sanctions against Iran is to end in May and Ankara’s requests for prolongation have been turned down so far.

In this rather stormy state of affairs, the annual conference organized jointly by the American Turkish Council and the Turkish-U.S. Business Council that started yesterday in Washington is seen as an opportunity to at least keep the dialogue channels open. In that respect, Finance and Treasury Minister Berat Albayrak, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and Presidential Spokesperson İbrahim Kalın’s attendance at the conference served as an occasion for the Turkish top executives to meet their U.S. interlocutors.

This is the first time in years that the conference sees a high-level attendance especially from the Turkish side, while the interest shown by the American side at the political level still remains lower compared to the previous years when Turkish-U.S. relations suffered from less strain.

U.S. special representative for Syria James Jeffrey and Joint Chief of Staff chairman was the keynote speakers from the U.S. side for the first day of the conference.

U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donahue reaffirmed the chamber’s “support for robust trade and economic partnership” with Turkey and said “Turkey is very important to the U.S. business community and, therefore, the U.S.”

Underlining the fact that the U.S. and Turkish presidents set the target to reach $75 billion dollar for trade volume, Donahue asked policy makers to clear the way for freer trade. “In order to build closer commercial ties we need to reduce and eliminate tariff on steel and aluminum as well as retaliatory tariff,” he said.

Donahue said the chamber was pressing the U.S. administration to abolish the tariffs.

Donahue also underlined the need for structural reforms in Turkey to build investor confidence. “Businesses crave certainty; greater predictability will help attract more investors,” he said.

U.S. special representative for Syria James Jeffrey said geopolitical dimension in U.S.-Turkish relations is as important as the economic dimension. He said the role played by Turkey in Syria was crucial for U.S. interests. Jeffrey added that the U.S. and Turkey shared the same goals in Syria, defeating DAESH (the Arabic acronym for ISIL) as well as getting Iranian forces out of Syria.

Jeffrey confirmed that there were disagreements on the east of Syria. “We understand that Turkey has legitimate concerns, the U.S. president has accepted these concerns,” he said, adding that “the U.S. has concerns as well especially with the people we worked to fight against DAESH.” He implied the cooperation between U.S. soldiers and the YPG, which is seen by Turkey as the illegal PKK’s wing in Syria.

Jeffrey said that talks were going on to create a safe zone where YPG forces, which he defined as “the PKK’s offshoot,” would pull out from. He added that the U.S. will work to have this zone remain free of threat to Turkey.

The PKK is listed as a terrorist group by Turkey, the U.S. and the EU.

Speaking after Jeffrey, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said the U.S. should recognize Turkey as her main regional partner while dealing with global issues.

Akar said Turkey has neutralized 8,000 terrorists in Syria during Operation Euphrates Shield and underlined that of these 8000, 3000 were ISIL members, the most radicalized terrorists.”

He added that the U.S. was providing large quantities of weapons and heavy military to the YPG out of proportion to fight the remaining ISIL.

Akar said U.S. policy to cooperate with a terrorist organization to fight another one was unjustifiable. He underlined that the U.S. withdrawal must avoid creating a vacuum in the region and should be conducted with close cooperation with the Turkish Armed Forces. “Safe zone should address Turkey’s security concerns and enable the return of refugees. The U.S. has been talking about a 20-mile deep zone and we are discussing this issue with our U.S. counterparts to secure the borders. Turkish soldiers have to be present on the safe zone.”

On Turkey’s decision to purchase Russian S-400 missiles, Akar said they will be a standalone system and it will not be integrated with NATO or any NATO-connected national systems.

“This purchase does not signify a change in our strategic course. There is no change in Turkey’s commitment to NATO,” said Akar, adding that linking the S-400 with the F-35 project, to which Turkey has already spent a billion dollar, was misguided. Underlining the fact that the NATO secretary-general saw the purchase of S-400 as a national decision, Akar said: “We are not just buyers, but investors in the F-35 project. We expect our partners to remain committed.” Akar said Turkey remained puzzled by the pose on the delivery of parts in F-35 and said threats and ultimatums do not work.

Akar said “we are not an adversary of the U.S.” and criticized the possibility that Turkey could face sanctions because of a purchase from Russia. According to Akar, Turkey continues to study the recent proposal made by the U.S. on the purchase of Patriots. He also talked about FETÖ and said its leaders and members earned $800 million in income in the U.S. Adding that FETÖ was in illegal activities in the U.S., like tax evasion and embezzlement of funds, Akar urged the U.S. administration to approach FETÖ as a national security issue. “Do we have problems with the U.S.? Yes we have. Can we overcome them? Yes we can,” said Akar at the end of his speech.

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