US-Turkey row threatens historic alliance between Nato allies

Washington imposing sanctions on Nato’s second largest power once seemed outlandish

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan gesture as they talk at the start of the NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium July 11, 2018.  REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo
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The prospect of the country with the largest army in NATO imposing sanctions on the alliance’s second largest army may once have been outlandish. But the diplomatic crisis between the United States and Turkey has been brewing for years, endangering a historic alliance that survived the trials of the Cold War.

The origins of the dispute between Ankara and Washington go farther back than the detention of Andrew Brunson, an American pastor who has been in prison in Izmir for nearly two years over allegations of spying for Kurdish separatists and the Fethullah Gulen network, which is accused of masterminding the 2016 coup attempt. The more immediate causes of the fallout between the two strategic allies lie next door in Syria.

Turkish officials argued early on during the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Al Assad that the US should impose a no-fly zone to ground the regime’s planes and halt the killing of civilians. But their push for a forceful approach in Syria fell on deaf ears in Washington, which saw few partners on the ground that it was willing to work with to overthrow President Assad, and it had little appetite for being embroiled in another Middle Eastern war.

When the US did intervene in Syria against ISIS, it chose as its partner in the fight to be the People’s Protection Units (YPG). The Kurdish paramilitary force has close links to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a designated terrorist group that fought a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state. Ankara believed the YPG would turn the territory it conquered from ISIS into an autonomous zone on its southern border.

Bristling at Washington’s alliance with what it saw as a terrorist group and strategic threat, Turkey turned to Russia, President Assad’s primary backer and geopolitical foe of the US, to try and broker a settlement in Syria that would also exclude the Kurdish paramilitaries Turkey would go on to fight militarily. Along with Moscow and Tehran, the trio would largely shut out the US as they sought to broker talks between the regime and the opposition.


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Those differences placed the two NATO allies on two divergent paths in the regional and global power struggle that was playing out in Syria. As the US argued it needed to curtail Iranian influence in the region, and would go on to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions, Turkey said it did not need to abide by them. After difficulties purchasing Patriot anti-missile batteries, Ankara would declare its intent to buy the Russian S-400 system, designed to fell the F-35 fighter jets that Turkey was helping its allies build.

Though they experienced a brief rapprochement after the election of Donald Trump, the easy rapport between him and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would not be enough to heal the divide between the two nations, a split that would be exacerbated occasionally by diplomatic attacks and other measures.

President Erdogan’s bodyguards beat up protesters in May 2017 when he visited the US, prompting calls to expel the Turkish ambassador. Turkey’s arrest of US consulate staff in Istanbul due to alleged coup links prompted tit-for-tat halts in visa applications, and a public trial involving a Turkish-Iranian gold trader in which the state-owned Halkbank was accused of helping Tehran circumvent sanctions added to the bad blood.


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In addition, the US has yet to hand over Mr Gulen, the alleged mastermind of the coup, who remains ensconced in his compound near Pennsylvania. The American response to the coup as it was unfolding, with then Secretary of State John Kerry calling for “stability, peace, continuity” within Turkey instead of condemning the attempted putsch left a bitter taste in the mouths of many Turks.

Last month, observers expected Turkey to release Mr Brunson after a positive interaction between President Trump and President Erdogan on the sidelines of the Nato Summit in Brussels. But in a mid-July hearing, a court in Izmir ordered his release from prison into house arrest, prompting a threat of sanctions by President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.

Few in Turkey appeared to take the threat seriously, particularly after Washington backed down from fiery rhetoric against North Korea and Iran. Pro-government newspapers saw the statements by the American administration as an attempt to appease evangelical voters ahead of elections in November. The US had refrained from condemning Turkey’s human rights record since the coup, including the arrest of dozens of journalists, and many civil society members and human rights campaigners as it clamped down on dissent.


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So they were taken by surprise by the announcement of sanctions, measures commonly reserved for foes like Iranian Revolutionary Guards officials or Russian oligarchs close to the Kremlin.

Selim Sazak, an expert on Turkish politics and adjunct fellow at The Century Foundation, said Moscow was the ultimate winner amid the antagonism between the two allies. He pointed out that Turkey relies on Russia for gas shipments as well as its influence in seeking a resolution in Syria.

“You need to think about the arc of how we came here,” he said. “On what did they bet the house? Presumably Russian support. Which makes sense because they rely so much on Moscow now.”

Both President Erdogan and President Trump have yet to weigh in since the imposition of the sanctions, and have not signaled whether they expect ties to worsen.


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The Turkish president’s son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, struck a conciliatory tone, saying their issues ought to be resolved through "diplomacy and constructive efforts appropriate for two countries and allies with a strong historical background”.

Nevertheless, one official from the nationalist Iyi party suggested that perhaps the Trump Towers in Istanbul ought to be seized. And the headline in Yenicag, a newspaper, captured the mood by declaring: “The latest treachery from the USA.”