By MK Bhadrakumar and cross-posted from Asia Times
The Trump administration’s falling out with Turkey stems from many factors – US support for the Kurds amid the war in Syria, its backing for the ‘coup-plotter’ Gulen, plus Turkey’s ‘pivot to the East’ and embrace of Iran, so there are no easy answers.
Strictly speaking, this is not the first time that Washington has imposed sanctions against Turkey. But the circumstances are entirely different, which makes the present crisis far more intractable.
The US imposed an arms embargo on Turkey in 1975 followed the latter’s invasion and occupation of Northern Cyprus. Ankara retaliated by shutting down all US bases in Turkey. Nonetheless, it wasn’t really symptomatic of a breakdown in the ‘bilateral’ Turkish-American relationship as such – although, it took over three years and protracted negotiations for the status quo to be restored.
The Turkish military, which was traditionally the most effective Cold War era interlocutor for Washington, played a key role at that time. But in the present era, ‘Pashas’ are no longer calling the shots in Ankara.
A ceremonial group photo in the morning newspapers on the re-convened National Security Council meeting on Thursday (which comprises the civilian and military leaders) brought this out poignantly. The ‘Pashas’ in uniform lined up on the third row, while President Recep Erdogan stood alone by himself in the front with the cabinet ministers standing behind him in the second row.
Anti-American mood in a pro-Western state
Washington may not realize that its capacity to leverage Turkish government decisions is very limited in the Erdogan era. Again, the public’s mood is vehemently anti-American and the politicians are acutely conscious of that.
Soon after news about the US sanctions trickled in on Wednesday evening the ruling party joined hands with the three other mainstream parties to issue a joint statement. It said: “We say ‘no’ to the US threats with common solidarity and determination of our nation,” and demanded reciprocal action by Erdogan. Indeed, a spokesman for the liberal opposition Good Party demanded that “the government should seize the Trump Towers” in Istanbul.
Yet, Erdogan himself is keeping silent and awaiting feedback from Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who met US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Singapore on the sidelines of the ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting. The possibility of a face-saving formula emerging cannot be ruled out.
Erdogan and President Trump exchanged views on the sidelines of the recent NATO summit in Brussels regarding the ongoing trial of pastor Andrew Brunson, who is the central figure in the present crisis. Indications were that Erdogan might set the pastor free and eventually let him return to the US, as Trump had demanded.
But then, something snapped and Trump acted in the meantime. To be sure, one thing Erdogan will want to hear from Cavusoglu is whether it was only a coincidence that on Wednesday, as the Treasury Department in Washington announced the decision on sanctions against Turkey, in the Cabinet Room of the White House Trump presided over an unprecedented meeting of “inner city pastors” who were praising him, saying it was gratifying that “Christians would have a friend in the White House” and the country had a president “having an ear to hear from God.”
Having said that, Erdogan is obliged to act – and be seen as acting forcefully. Fundamentally, though, the US-Turkish faceoff has become extremely complicated…