Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s cheery meeting with President Donald Trump on Wednesday raised a very important question: Can the US trust Turkey in light of Ankara’s blossoming relationship with Russia?
The White House meeting occurred in the wake of many acts that all favored Turkey and Russia, despite Trump’s post-briefing words that Turkey is “a great NATO ally.” Trump had previously threatened to destroy the Turkish economy and impose sanctions against Ankara, when he tweeted: “If Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the economy of Turkey.”
After Trump gave the “green light” for Erdogan to go ahead with last month’s military operation in northeast Syria, the chessboard changed in northeast Syria. In addition, Daesh leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi was killed in a Turkish-controlled Free Syrian Army area a few miles from the Turkish border. Ankara did not provide any assistance in this operation and does very little to counter Daesh.
Clearly, Erdogan is motivated by protecting the Turkish border from Kurdish militants.
The Trump White House is offering the Turkish leader a “workaround” in a bid to resolve the situation, with the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) due to be applied because of Ankara’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft missile system, which is obviously helping to fray diplomatic ties. Discussions about Turkey purchasing Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets are advancing too and these Moscow-Ankara negotiations are an obvious tactical move to damage US-Turkey relations.
Relations between the US and Turkey began to deteriorate during Barack Obama’s presidency, when Washington removed Patriot missile systems from Turkish territory and Erdogan began to look for opportunities to acquire replacement weapons from Russia. So, when the opportunity arose, Russia and Turkey tested what the reaction from the Trump administration would be. They now have their answer.
Consequently, Moscow delivered four S-400 air defense divisions to Turkey worth $2.5 billion. They will be operational next year. There are three to four more S-400 orders being negotiated between Moscow and Ankara, complicating the strategic picture and the purpose and use of such systems in a NATO country.
The US is already tardy in triggering the automatic CAATSA sanctions, with the lack of US resolve to act on a critical foreign policy security issue being seen as a weakness. The same thinking is applied to the lack of sanctions against India for its purchase of the S-400 system. Moreover, questions of where Turkey fits into the NATO alliance are being raised and, increasingly, there are serious discussions about removing its membership or downsizing its participation as a penalty for moving closer to Russia. Such actions are necessary because of the profound nature of Ankara’s cozying up to Moscow.
US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said: “Turkey will feel the consequences of these sanctions. There is no place in NATO for significant Russian military purchases.” This type of language is likely to fall on deaf ears in the hallways of the White House under this president. Trump’s favoritism toward Erdogan because of economic issues will likely outweigh the security aspect. But time will tell, especially with an increasingly vocal US Congress.
The lack of US resolve to act on a critical foreign policy security issue is being seen as a weakness.
Dr. Theodore Karasik
Despite the theatrics, Trump has embraced Erdogan and promised to resolve issues between the two countries, including Russia’s arms sales to Ankara. While Trump speaks much like Erdogan, praises Turkey’s progress and agrees on who is terrorist and who is not according to Ankara’s definition, Erdogan clearly understands the leverage he has over this particular American president. This is why Turkey and Russia are moving closer together and Trump is allowing them to, whether he knows it or not.
Erdogan’s style of leadership makes him stand out as being extra assertive, allowing him to bring political power under his direct rule and make orders by presidential decree. Having risen through the ranks of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) apparatus, Erdogan sees the greatness of Turkey and its ability to spread neo-Ottomanism globally. This type of thinking runs counter to America’s and automatically puts Turkey in a bind with the US.
A Turkey that spreads its religious and political ideology around the world is actually a competitor against the US, especially in third locations such as Africa or Central Asia. US strategic interests in these two geostrategic regions are challenged on many fronts and Turkey’s global efforts under Erdogan may clash with America’s vision. The key question is whether Turkey can be a partner in this regard — and the answer may well be “no” given the extremely testy relations between Washington and Ankara.