The election of Donald Trump had perked up Turkey’s hope for a more favorable engagement with the United States after a difficult and rancorous relationship with the Obama administration. Turkey’s president Erdogan, like many other heavy-handed leaders, thought that Trump’s ‘America First’ policy would spare him the US pontification on human rights violations that he was called to task on after the massive crackdown he unleashed in the wake of the July 15th 2016 failed coup. The general Trump discourse that eschewed human rights trope for ‘pragmatic’ ‘real-politik’ emphasis on US national interest gave Turkish authorities optimism that the new administration might be forthcoming with their demand for the extradition of Fethullah Gülen, the alleged mastermind of the failed coup. In fact, as the Wall Street Journal reported, the Special Counsel Robert Mueller is investigating Turkish proposal to offer retired General and former Trump National Security advisor Michael Flynn and his son up to $15 million USD as a quid pro quo for delivering Gülen to Turkish government as part of his lobbying effort to thaw the relationship between the two countries. However, Turkey’s hopes for an amiable relationship conducive for its interests are dashed. As developments in October with the suspension of visa services in both countries showed, things have gone from bad to worse with no signal for radical change on the horizon. The question is then, why, despite the express intent of both countries, is the relationship not working ?
There are one thousand and one reasons why the relationship between the United States and Turkey is not working well. Both countries do not see eye to eye on many strategic issues from the Syrian civil war to the ongoing Gulf crisis between the Saudi-led coalition and Qatar to Iran and the war on ISIS. Given the fact that the thrust of Trump’s Middle Eastern foreign policy is predicated on isolating and weakening Iran through a strong alliance with Saudi Arabia, Turkey won’t be on the top list of US priorities for the near future. The fact that Erdogan is working real hard, in rhetoric and practice, to clear Turkey off the Mephistophelean Western shadow will also make sure that the existing differences will stay unresolved for some time. However, two main factors seem to underlie the worsening relationship between the two countries. One reason is the outstanding issue pertaining to Fethullah Gülen; second, the ongoing trial of the Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab in New York- a trial that threatens to unveil the dirty laundry of top AKP dogs to the public. These reasons are added to other subjects where the two countries differ; the US arming of the Syrian Kurdish forces in its fight against the Islamic State, the Turkish increasing relations with Russia, and the issue of the American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Turkish authorities have been relentless in their call for the United States to extradite Fethullah Gülen since the failed coup. Bringing Gülen to Turkey for trial is important for the AKP ruling party’s bid to finish off their arch rivals symbolically and practically once for all. The ruling party has conducted massive cleansing operations against tens of thousands of alleged Gülenists with vengeance. In the highly personalized conduct of state affairs, however, the purges have not satisfied Erdogan’s penchant for obsessive pursuit of enemies. He wants the head of the head of the so-called Fethullah Terror Organization. The US response to the Turkish request for Gülen’s extradition is that the issue is for the court to resolve and in the absence of inconvertible evidence American authorities can’t do anything. Turkish authorities have used the US refusal to hand over Gülen as additional grist to their America-is-part-of-the-conspiracy-against-Turkey propaganda mill. They have shown their displeasure by publicly insinuating that the United States was behind the failed coup and incarcerating Americans or Turkish citizens working for the United States in the hope of pressuring the US to a prisoners’ swap. Things came to their head when on October 4 2017 Turkish authorities arrested a Turkish citizen who works for the American embassy in Ankara and seized his mobile phone over alleged links to the Gülenist movement. In unprecedented move, the United States retaliated by suspending all non-immigrant visa services on the 8th of October. This unprecedented move provoked a tit-for-tat reaction from Turkey as the later announced, almost in the same words as that of the United States, the suspension of visa services for US citizens. Later on, the Turkish foreign ministry said it had summoned the American charges d’affaires, and the Istanbul prosecutor’s office said it had ordered the questioning of another US consulate official as a suspect in an unidentified case. The crisis sent shockwaves down the spine of Turkish economy. The Lira dropped by 3.4 percent, stock index fell as much as 4.7 percent, and the Turkish airline’s share fell by over 9 percent. The crisis, however, had a political windfall benefit for the ruling party. The anti-American wave it strides got roaring and Erdogan’s incessant insinuating rhetoric that the US has been up to weaken Turkey was said to have found confirmation.
While expressing their strong opinions about each other, the US and Turkey tried to cool down temperatures. On November 9, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildrim met with American Vice-President Mike Pence to discuss among many issues, the visa restriction both countries imposed on each other; the case of imprisoned American pastor Andrew Brunson; Syria and American support for the Kurdish YPG units; the extradition of Fethullah Gülen; and the trial of the Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab. However, the meeting did not bring much of a breakthrough. Even though both countries expressed keen interest to thaw relations, the outstanding thorny issues remained unresolved. The US showed no sign of agreeing to consider extraditing Fethullah Gülen and stop its military support to Syrian Kurdish militants. Turkey on its part, did not express commitment to release Andrew Brunson and the two US embassy employees it jailed in early October. There was also no decision on a full restoration of visa processing even though both countries somewhat eased the visa restriction just before Yildrim’s visit. Both countries reiterated their positions. Yildrim is caught as saying that “If the US does not take any steps about Gülen, our relations will not improve.”
Another thorny issue, and something very personal to Erdogan, is the trial of Reza Zarrab in New York. A flamboyant and controversial gold trader, Reza Zarrab was at the center of a bribery and sanctions-busting scandal that nearly toppled the Turkish government in 2013. Zarrab allegedly shipped gold to Iran in exchange for oil and natural gas, undermining the international sanctions against Iran. The transaction was said to be facilitated by the state-owned Halk Bank whose deputy chief executive officer, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, is on trial for aiding the processes. Four other top ranking Turkish official are indicted in September for taking bribes from Zarrab to facilitate the “gas for gold” transaction. Turkish official have been very nervous about the issue and have been calling it a Gülenist conspiracy. Erdogan took very keen interest in Zarrab’s trial and discussed it with the Obama and Trump administration. It is said that, even though Erdogan is not personally implicated in the Zarrab case, he is afraid that the trial might uncover some uncomfortable truth about his administration and his senior officials. Despite incessant attempts to secure Zarrab’s release and the resolution of his case in a diplomatic framework, the trial is proceeding with Zarab agreeing to a plea bargain.
In light of the above issues, the Turkish-US relationship will continue to suffer. Surely both countries still need each other on many fronts. Turkey could help the US to tame down Russia and Iran and fight the Islamic State. Turkey will also need its ties with the US since its economic and military ties are intertwined with the West. However, relations between the two sides will remain elusive and akin to a query after a Holy Macguffin – much talked about but inexistent.
Joe Hammoura, “US-Turkish Relationship: A Quest for Holy MacGuffin?”, Middle East Institute for Research and Strategic Studies (MEIRSS), December 9, 2017.