Trump’s National Security Strategy is bad news for Turkey
After almost a year in office, U.S. President Donald Trump will unveil his first National Security Strategy (NSS) on Dec. 18. It may be full of bad news for Turkey.
We learned something about the forthcoming release of the document from a key official who actually put it together with his team, national security adviser General H.R. McMaster. In a speech in Washington last week at a London-based think tank, McMaster called the 70-page document a “dramatic rethinking of American foreign policy from previous decades.”
The speech stirred controversy in Turkey, as McMaster referred to the role of Turkey and Qatar in “sponsoring radical Islamist ideology.”
“We didn’t pay enough attention to how this is being advanced through charities, madrassas and other social organizations. It is now done more by Qatar and by Turkey,” McMaster said, according to The National, an English language daily published in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
After a vocal protest from the Turkish Foreign Ministry, McMaster issued a statement in which he voiced his firm belief in a strong alliance with Turkey, saying he was actually talking about doing more with Turkey to cut financing for those who promote hate and violence.
But it is hard to believe that McMaster’s views were misrepresented in the initial reports. Indeed, he is not the only key player in the Trump administration who has major concerns about the Turkish government’s alleged ties to radical Islamists. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in his testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Relations back in June, said there are “elements of the Muslim Brotherhood” that have become part of governments, pointing out parliaments in Bahrain and Turkey as examples. Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon, in an interview with the Saudi-owned Asharq Al-Awsat, even claimed that Turkey is “more dangerous than Iran.”
The concerns are not limited to what the U.S. sees as an ideological proximity between Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar and Turkey. Relations with jihadist fractions in Syria’s Idlib province, where Turkey has deployed troops following the Astana process, are subject to high-level attention in Washington. All of this is regarded as part of a bigger picture in which Ankara appears in conflict with U.S. interests on major global challenges.
Trump’s NSS is expected to be a roadmap for tougher action against the Qatar-Muslim Brotherhood axis, along with continued advocacy for Saudi-UAE patronage in the region. There is no doubt that sanctioning Iran will be another focal point of the new NSS. Standing before missile fragments at Anacostia-Boilling Airbase outside Washington U.S. a few days ago, Ambassador to the U.N. Niki Haley argued that Iran is arming Houthi rebels in Yemen and is therefore violating U.N. sanctions. Her statement reminded everyone – including Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif – of Colin Powell’s famous 2003 speech at the U.N. making the case for the Iraq war.
At a time when Ankara is already on the U.S. radar for stepping up its security and intelligence cooperation with Tehran, Trump’s eagerness to go after Iran could have damaging consequences for Turkey in Washington.
Interestingly, as we move closer to Trump’s Jan. 13, 2018 deadline on providing a 90-day review of the Iranian nuclear deal to Congress, the Reza Zarrab case in New York is also approaching a wrap-up. The jury will probably make a verdict for deputy general manager of Halkbank, Hakan Atilla, in the case into evading sanctions on Iran in the first weeks of 2018. From then on, mayhem may reign between Ankara and Washington - especially if the U.S. Congress jumps on board with a debate on secondary sanctions on Turkey.
If you think we have hit rock bottom in Turkey-U.S. relations in the second half of 2017, wait for what 2018 has to bring.