Turkey-US ties getting even more complicated

Turkey-US ties getting even more complicated

Ties between Turkey and the United States have for a very long time observed a messy picture. Today, they sound much more complicated because of inconsistencies both sides are showing in various dimensions in regards to their bilateral relationship.

Take the discussions on the safe zone. Turkey and the U.S. announced an agreement on the creation of a safe zone on Aug. 7 and immediately started intense discussions on the modalities. Although there are still so many technicalities they need to sort out, the process has begun through consecutive reconnaissance flights and finally a combined patrol mission inside the Syrian border.

But this was not sufficient for the Turkish government although it has admitted that these joints steps were constituting a good starting point. On the day the Turkish and American troops carried out the first joint patrol, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan harshly slammed the U.S. over the safe zone. Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu on Sept. 10 described the steps taken in northeastern Syria by the U.S. as “cosmetic” while characterizing the U.S. as Turkey’s “so-called ally.”

This inconsistency on the Turkish side has external and internal reasons. Erdoğan and Çavuşoğlu often recall the Manbij protocol the two countries agreed to on June 4, 2018, which has never been implemented by the Americans. So they don’t want the second Manbij incident.

Internally, there seems to be a divergence between different ministries and governmental bodies over the safe zone. Talks for the safe zone have long been under the guidance of the Turkish Defense Ministry although a Turkey-U.S. Syria Working Group has been led by the Foreign Ministry.

It’s believed that Defense Minister Hulusi Akar has played an important role in convincing Erdoğan and the rest of the government to hit the road with the U.S. to set up a safe zone before the details were agreed on. Some of the messages conveyed by Erdoğan in his recent statements therefore target the defense minister’s advises throughout this process.

In an interesting development, the Defense Ministry denied media reports that suggested the U.S. vehicles that took part in the combined patrol mission were carrying YPG flags. It could be suggested as yet another example of a division among the Turkish institutions.

The U.S. is not innocent either. Given the frustration over the Manbij deal, the U.S. has to be much more committed to accomplishing this process in a way to fully assure the security of its NATO ally. Continuing to supply logistics to the YPG and supporting this group in Syria is enough to displease the Turkish government.

Take bilateral trade talks as another important matter. It’s quite unusual that U.S. Trade Minister Wilbur Ross pays a five-day-long visit to a country. In Istanbul and Ankara, he held extensive talks to explore ways to increase the trade volume to $100 billion. The idea is to prepare a strategy report to be submitted to both presidents who are expected to hold a meeting later this month.

However, at the same time, the U.S. administration is strategizing how to impose sanctions on Turkey as part of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. Yet, restrictions on Turkey’s steel and iron exports to the U.S. and Turkey’s removal from preferential trade system are contradictory with the joint objective of increasing the trade volume.

Take the F-35/S-400 issue. The Trump administration is about to commit the same mistake the Obama administration had made over the sale of the Patriot air defense systems. Turkish exclusion from the F-35 aircraft project is pushing Turkey to seek alternatives just like it did by choosing Russian S-400s after its interest to procure Patriots were turned down.

On Turkey’s side, messages given by the Turkish government that its ties with Russia move towards a strategic partnership caused serious concerns among its traditional allies. There is nothing wrong for Turkey to deepen ties with Russia as a neighboring country, but giving the impression that its axis is shifting is erroneous.  

One of the reasons for the bumpy ties is the lack of mutual trust, but more importantly, the lack of strategic and political framework has a big negative impact on the nature of ties. Turkey wants to play a more independent and autonomous role in its immediate neighborhood, and the U.S. should design its policies in accordance with this new reality. Turkey, on the other hand, should see that the U.S. will never lose its interest in this region and will have a continued presence.

It’s, therefore, a very big need for both sides to tailor a new political framework to develop a mutual understanding and, therefore, to avoid fresh tension in ties.

Serkan Demirtaş, US,