Yaşar Yakış
Aug 10 2018

Turkish-American relations are still salvageable

Last week, Turkey-U.S. relations went from bad to worse. The future prospects are still unclear, but both sides are aware of the need for caution.

The turning point was when the United States imposed sanctions on two Turkish ministers. Sanctions on the cabinet ministers of an ally of course contradict the spirit of the alliance. However, the sanctions did not come out of the blue. Political analysts, both in the United States and other NATO countries, have been writing for years that Turkey had become a liability for NATO. Armed Services Committees in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives introduced laws to punish Turkey by not delivering the sophisticated F-35 jet fighters.

A blatant warning came on July 26 from Vice-President Mike Pence who said in a meeting on Religious Freedom in the Department of State. “To President Erdoğan and the Turkish government, I have a message on behalf of the president of the United States of America: Release Pastor Andrew Brunson now or be prepared to face the consequences!”.

Turkey did not take these warnings seriously. Most comments in the Turkish media said these were mere verbal threats and their implementation against an allied country would be a gross mistake by the United States.

This gross mistake was in fact been committed by the United States when the White House spokesperson on August 1 announced that, at the U.S. president’s direction, the Department of Treasury was sanctioning the Turkish minister of justice and minister of interior, both of whom played leading role in the arrest and detention of pastor Brunson. As a result, any property or interest in property of both ministers within U.S. jurisdiction was to be blocked.

Turkish public opinion reacted angrily. Columnists and media commentators suggested Turkey should retaliate in kind. Some proposed that U.S. soldiers should be banned from entering common military bases in Turkey.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, not wanting to remain indifferent to these calls, said in a carbon copy of the White House statement, that he instructed Turkish authorities to sanction the U.S. minister of justice and minister of interior and block their assets in Turkey, if they have any.

Referring to the U.S. minister of interior, Erdoğan did not specify whether he meant Kirstjen Nielsen, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security who is in charge of national security and immigration, or Ryan Zinke, the secretary of interior, who is in charge of the management and conservation of federal lands and natural resources.

Now that the die is cast, the parties are looking for ways that could be presented as a political victory in both countries.

Despite Turkey’s prudence not to let the tension escalate, the United States seems to be determined first to secure Brunson’s release. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, after a meeting with his Turkish counterpart in Singapore, duly praised the importance of continued cooperation with Turkey, but did not mince his words. “I made clear that it is well past time that Pastor Brunson be freed, be permitted to return to the United States,” he said.

In light of this statement, it is not realistic to expect the United States to fold first.

After tension reached its peak and Turkish lira dwindled to a new low against the U.S. dollar, Turkey woke up to the reality that there is no use in further bickering with the United States. It announced that a preliminary agreement had been reached with Washington. A nine-man high-level delegation was hastily dispatched to Washington on August 8.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said that day: “I think the kind of progress that we want is for pastor Brunson, our locally employed staff and other American citizens to be brought home”. This statement suggests the United States regards Brunson’s return home as a pre-condition.

Turkish-American relations are still salvageable, but a genuine and coherent effort is needed on both sides.

The ‘independent and unbiased’ Turkish judiciary may find a solution for this complicated issue, but the damage done to Turkey’s economy will remain.