The Real Reasons why US-Turkey Relations Have Hit an All-Time Low

US-turkey relations erdogan assault protesters no role for assad operation olive branch
Ankara (GPA) – Over the past week, US-Turkey relations have hit an all-time low, but how did these two allies end up at odds with each other?
US-turkey relations erdogan assault protesters no role for assad operation olive branch
Presidents Donald Trump (US) and Recep Erdogan (Turkey)
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

If you’ve been watching the news over the past week you may think the current hostility between Washington and Ankara is about the US pastor, Andrew Brunson. Brunson, who has been in police custody or under house arrest in Turkey since October 2016, has now apparently become a high priority for the Trump Regime.

But why did this take so long? Vice President Mike Pence has known about Brunson since day one of the administration thanks to his ties to the US evangelical community but neither he or the President have previously expressed this level of outrage. There have already been low key talks between Washington and Ankara in the past concerning the return of Brunson to the US, but what the Western media isn’t reporting now is how these talks to return a US national fit into the bigger geopolitical picture of US-Turkey relations.

Andrew Brunson and Fethullah Gulen: “A Pastor for a Pastor”

Behind the general request by the US to return Andrew Brunson is a several-year-long process involving several closed-door meetings about the pastor between US and Turkish officials. During all of these meetings, the US demand was the same as it is now, but they weren’t the only one who wanted something out of the negotiations.

You aren’t hearing much about Ankara’s demands right now but Turkish President Recep Erdogan has previously said he would be willing to return the US pastor in exchange for Turkey’s own expat “pastor,” Fethullah Gulen. Erdogan made this perfectly clear at a rally for Turkish police officers in March, saying that the trade should be a no-brainer since “the one that we have [in our hands – Brunson] is being tried, the one you have [in your hands – Gulen] is not being tried.”

Gulen is the exiled cleric and former-Erdogan ally alleged to be behind a failed coup in July 2016 with supposed US assistance. Turkey has been asking for the return of Gulen since before the dust even settled after the coup attempt but the US has so far refused to extradite the charter-school magnate and religious leader.

Ankara has allegedly even proposed some potential illegal schemes to get Gulen back, including one which may have involved former Trump aide Michael Flynn kidnapping the cleric and returning him to Turkey for $15 million. These kinds of strategies have become commonplace for Turkey which has been accused of kidnapping “terror suspects” around the world since the failed coup.

Related: Erdogan Offers Imprisoned US Pastor in Exchange for Gulen

Brunson is alleged to be an ally of Gulen and is said to be guilty of “gathering state secrets for espionage, attempting to overthrow the Turkish parliament and government, and to change the constitutional order” in participation with the Gulenists as well as “membership in an armed terrorist organization,” the Kurdish separatist terror organization, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Brunson has denied these charges in court, saying “My service that I have spent my life on, has now turned upside down. I was never ashamed to be a server of Jesus, but these claims are shameful and disgusting,” and that all he wants is “to return to my home.”

According to Brunson’s advocates, the pastor – who has been in Turkey with no previous legal troubles for 23 years – was assisting Syrian refugees as of late. Brunson is currently on house arrest and is facing up to 35 years in prison.

Those close to the Brunson case claim that, in reality, the pastor has been used as a political prop from the day he was arrested in October 2016. Their evidence for this is the fact that when Brunson was originally arrested, he wasn’t even charged with a crime and wasn’t moved to a counterterrorism center for 63 days.

But Trump and his cabinet have been engaging in talks for the return of Brunson to no avail since the first few months in power, so why has this pastor’s two-year-long detention suddenly turned into an international incident?

The fact of the matter is that the dispute over Andrew Brunson is likely serving as a test case for other disputes with Turkey. Both Turkey’s domestic and foreign policy are causing a lot of problems with the US that can’t go unresolved much longer if the two countries’ alliance is to hold up.

Turkey’s rocky relationship with Israel

One of these other sources of tension between the US is Turkey’s foreign policy in relation to another American ally, Israel. While Turkey is a major trading partner with Israel – and is currently negotiating new agreements to boost cross-border commerce with them – Erdogan’s public statements with Israel still cause problems for the occupying entity’s public image.

Turkey has no problem buying military equipment from Israel but in order for Erdogan to rile up the religious conservative base of his Justice and Development Party (AKP), he sometimes needs to slam Tel Aviv in public over things like their crimes in Gaza. Erdogan often calls the occupation government terrorists but this doesn’t really mean much and he only tends to do it around elections or when he needs to take attention off of other things (such as the tanking economy).

Related: Why Recep Erdogan Sometimes Says Cool Things

According to Erdogan, when he says crazy things (aka things the west should ignore) to audiences at home these statements are meant purely for “domestic consumption,” but any NATO ally calling Israel a “terrorist state” is obviously going to get some attention.

Israel enjoys this attention because it also enables Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to call Erdogan a terrorist right back (which really isn’t that far off, but more on that later). Netanyahu’s Likud Party also makes political maneuvers that antagonize Turkey, such as the recent bill put up in the Knesset (Israeli parliament) to recognize the Armenian Genocide. The bill was originally set to be voted on around the time of the Turkish election but the vote was delayed so Erdogan couldn’t use it during his campaign to further stir up Turkish nationalists.

Clearly both nations benefit from this dysfunctional relationship in some sick ways but this isn’t the end of the problems caused by Turkish foreign policy. Turkey doesn’t often actually come into direct conflict with Israel but often throws a wrench in the plans of their other allies.

Turkey in Syria: From ISIS to al Qaeda

The countries Turkey actually has caused a ton of problems for are literally all of their other neighbors!

Turkey used to have such good relations with their neighbors that their foreign policy was termed as a “zero problems with neighbors” and even discouraged the 2003 invasion of their then-biggest trading-partner, Iraq, this began to change around the time of the “Arab spring.”

At this time it is perfectly normal for Erdogan to constantly use military adventures abroad in order to fuel his popularity at home like he did with “Operation Olive Branch” in northern Syria. This evolution of Erdogan’s politics really started to come into fruition at the beginning of the dirty war on Syria.

Related: Wikileaks Reveal Scope of Turkish Connection to IS and Media Crackdown

From the start of the war on Syria, much like the US, Turkey got in on the proxy war game instead of directly intervening. Turkey was in a prime position to contribute to the jihadist militias springing up in Syria and allowed countless takfiri recruits to cross their border into Syria.

Although Turkey now, ironically, has this border walled off for their own security they let this go on for a number of years, allowing men, women, and children across the border to join terror groups and even allowed the Islamic State (IS) to cross the border freely to attack Kurdish forces in Kobane.

Once the US was finally somewhat invested in fighting IS, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) called on Ankara to cut the flow of jihadists to parts of Syria where the US operated. The CIA also called out Turkey for allowing massive amounts of IS oil to cross the border and providing the group with $1m a day in revenue at the height of their power but later apologized for both of these accusations under diplomatic pressure.

Turkey also caused other problems for the US-led coalition during the Syrian war shortly after Russia entered the conflict at the behest of Damascus when Turkey shot down a Russian jet on their southern border. According to Russia, the jet was in Syrian airspace. But according to Turkey, it was in their airspace. If the latter is true this means Russia was in NATO airspace yet at the time of the incident, NATO basically told Turkey to resolve it on their own (which may prove to be the United States’ biggest mistake).

Even with IS basically out of the picture for the last year, Turkey has still managed to cause problems for their NATO allies. Operation Olive Branch is the most recent example, which was the Turkish military operation to topple the Kurdish government in Afrin, northern Syria. The Kurds in Afrin’s military wing are the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) which as a group is a US ally.

Turkey considers the SDF a terrorist organization because it is basically led by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which by neocon US Senator Lindsey Graham’s own admission is led by members of the PKK. The PKK is labeled as a terrorist group by Turkey as well as the United States.

Turkey continued to warn the US that this association was unacceptable. The straw that broke the camel’s back, however, was when the United States tried to rename the SDF into a new organization called the Syrian Border Security Force. This was despite promises by Trump that he would somehow disarm the Kurds as the Syrian war wound down. To Turkey, this meant that the US was furthering the Kurdish ambitions for autonomy in Syria and would create a base for the PKK to try and do the same in Turkey (the group’s primary objective).

These events sparked Olive Branch and eventually led to the Turkish occupation of Afrin and it now seems that this has put the pieces in place for the US to leave. With the US basically consenting to the Turkish occupation in northern Syria, they have basically abandoned the Kurds. Historically speaking, this isn’t a surprise but it still leaves the Kurds in an awkward position as they face a renewed threat from Turkey without critical US air support.

Turkey has also brought some toxic friends along for Operation Olive Branch, moving jihadists from all over Syria into Afrin to carry out their war crimes. Turkey backs their version of the “Free Syrian Army” (FSA) in northern Syria, which they use to wage war on the Kurds. This incarnation of the FSA makes it pretty clear that their true affiliation is to al Qaeda. Turkey doesn’t care either way and is more than willing to use these jihadists as advance troops into Kurdish territory. These terrorists have also possibly caused problems for NATO and are suspected of being behind an IED blast in Manbij that killed a soldier from the US and the first one from the U.K. in Syria.

Related: Downing of Russian Jet Exposes Turkey’s Ties to al-Qaeda [Video]

These problems in Syria are only the beginning of Ankara’s problems with the other US. Beyond just generally getting in the way of the US in Syria, Turkey also has the potential to complicate another project that is close to Trump’s heart.

Turkey, the US, and Iran

Erdogan likes to say that what Turkey does in their backyard is none of the west’s business. This attitude is most evident is when it comes to Turkey’s dealings with their neighbor Iran.

With Donald Trump looking to re-apply pressure to Iran in a new economic war against the economic republic, the US is going to need allies to fall in line. Obviously, most countries aren’t actually falling in line on this with even European Union members like France trying to protect their companies from US sanctions on Iran, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Turkey would wish to do the same.

Turkey discouraged the 2003 invasion of Iraq and encouraged a diplomatic resolution due to Baghdad being Ankara’s primary trading partner before Iraq was sanctioned by the US. This kind of engagement with regional outliers by Turkey has continued as they have sought to replace the Iraqi market. Originally, Turkey was supposed to make up for this trade deficit by integrating into the EU market but as the country’s democracy has backslid the prospects of EU membership have basically died in arbitration.

Related: European Parliament Votes to Halt Talks on Turkey’s Membership in EU

In order to replace the European market Turkey never fully entered, Ankara went searching for other regional partners to make up for weaknesses in their import policy. One such regional partner that Turkey found to cooperate with on this was Iran despite the fact that Tehran was under US sanctions.

Iran obviously has one resource a lot of countries are after — oil — and Turkey is no different. One major import Turkey needs is oil but with much of the Middle East’s oil distribution chain broken after 2003, and Ankara’s bad relations with most of the Gulf Kingdoms, Turkey needed to seek other sources of oil.

Before ISIS was around to steal oil from Iraq and Syria and sell it at a discount, Turkey turned to Tehran, offering to make trades with Iran for oil. Since Tehran didn’t have access to the global market at the time Turkey had to find a way to avoid western sanctions and somehow pay for the oil. Turkey launched a scheme to break US sanctions prior to 2013 that is alleged to trace all the way up to President Erdogan himself.

This was all initially revealed during a corruption investigation in Turkey in 2013 but became a source of tension again last year when one of the gold traders involved volunteered to work with the US Department of Justice. The gold trader, Reza Zarrab, is the one who offered up testimony implying that Erdogan signed off on a series of transactions that violated Iran sanctions.

According to Zarrab, the DOJ investigation, as well as a 2013 corruption investigation in Turkey (that led to one of Erdogan’s earlier purges of the judiciary), Erdogan likely approved several deals with Chinese shell companies. These Chinese shell companies would be recorded as selling consumer goods and produce to Turkey which would be paid for with gold from the Turkish Halkbank. What Turkey was actually getting in return for the products they said were coming from China, was Iranian oil, which is where the sanctions violations come in.

Related: As US-Turkey Relations Simmer, Reza Zarrab’s Strange Case Adds Fuel to the Fire

With Turkey’s past and Trump’s current strategy to apply more pressure to Iran, Washington is clearly going to have a hard time trusting Ankara. This will be made even harder by the fact that not only is Turkey on bad terms with the US because of this sanctions incident but the greater-NATO alliance may also be at risk.

NATO, the F-35, S-400s, and the Turkish arms trade

Turkey’s overall relationship with NATO has also suffered in the past few years. This really began over the course of the Syrian war but has progressively gotten worse, leading to where we are now with Turkey sometimes floating the idea of leaving the organization.

This decline in US-Turkey relations goes back a while but one event that this current low point can be traced back to is probably that aforementioned Russian jet shot down over the Turkey-Syria border. When NATO left Turkey on their own to resolve this incident with Russia, the two countries ended up having better relations than before the Syrian war.

This continued throughout the Syrian war and eventually led to Turkey being invited to Russian-led Syria talks with Damascus and Tehran, which the US was excluded from. As a result of these negotiations, Turkey ended up being put in charge of several of the deconfliction zones in Syria which Washington had originally wanted to impose on their own terms.

This thaw in relations between NATO-member Turkey and top NATO-adversary Russia continued to thaw throughout this time and resulted in an increase of military, political, and economic cooperation between Ankara and Moscow. This relationship recently paid off when Turkey launched Operation Olive Branch, which needed Russia’s approval since Turkish forces would be illegally entering Syria.

There is one deal Turkey is looking to strike with Russia, however, that the US disapproves of above all the rest. This is Turkey’s attempt to purchase the Russian S-400 anti-air missile defense system rather than the American-made Patriots.

This planned purchase is causing huge problems with NATO since, according to the organization, the S-400 will be incompatible with the systems already in place in Turkey. One such NATO system that perfectly embodies this crisis is the new F-35 stealth fighter jet which Turkey was helping to design and build as part of a multinational partnership with the US, UK, and other western nations. Turkey has already received their first batch of the F-35s but they are still at airbases in the US while Turkish pilots train on flying them, but now it is unclear if they’ll be taking them home.

Any western-allied nation buying the S-400s could also be found in violation of the most recent sanctions put on Russia by the US Congress. Turkey is no exception to this and the US has threatened Ankara with further sanctions if they go through with the purchase. There is some reason to believe the Brunson-related sanctions on Turkey by the US are a small show of force proving that Washington is willing to apply bigger sanctions if Turkey continues down the path they’re on.

Related: US Official: Turkey S-400 Deal Could ‘Spike the Punch’ in F-35 Deal  

If these types of sanctions do go through and Turkey is kicked from projects like the F-35, this will likely end up severely harming the Turkish defense industry. Turkey makes a lot of money exporting lower-cost NATO equipment like armored personnel carriers and helicopters.

Turkey’s sales of this kind of equipment must be approved by the western countries through export licenses meant to ensure the security of the patented technology being sold to non-NATO countries. One such deal, involving 30 attack helicopters Turkey promised to Pakistan, may already be threatened if Turkey fails to get the export licenses from their NATO partners.

Erdogan is calling these sanctions already in place, recent threats of further tariffs on Turkish aluminum and steel, and the possible future sanctions “economic warfare,” but that isn’t really true (yet). While the Turkish economy is currently suffering, despite Erdogan’s claims that this is the result of the west, this downturn has been a long-time coming.

The Turkish lira is now at a record low against the dollar but this decrease in the currency’s value has been happening for some time now. Erdogan has not helped the economy with his actions either, making mistakes ranging from threats of taking over the central bank’s role of setting interest rates and encouraging Turks to trade in all their foreign cash and gold for lira. This reckless economic policy means that it is really Erdogan’s government undermining economic confidence and scaring away the foreign investment (the exact opposite of what Erdogan is claiming).

With all of this going on it is easy to see how one wrong turn could lead to a complete breakdown of the US-Turkish partnership. Recently, Erdogan’s supporters have taken some shots back at the US, including a group of lawyers who are pushing to raid the US-run İncirlik Air Base. According to the Turkish prosecutors, several US officers on the base are connected to the Gulen movement and played a role in the 2016 coup.

There is also concern on the US side over a stockpile of nuclear weapons located in Turkey that some analysts believe should be removed as soon as possible so Ankara can’t take control of them in any confusion. Some of these weapons are rumored to have been moved to Romania since 2016 following public revelations of Turkish involvement with terrorists.

Washington and Ankara can both see the writing on the wall, and both undoubtedly know that this relationship could be coming to an end.

In an op-ed for the New York Times this weekend, Erdogan expressed that Turkey is willing to start “looking for new friends and allies” if need be. Russia and China would likely be glad to do business with Turkey and leave the US and EU without their prized buffer state between them and Eurasia. Turkey has already expressed interest in joining competing economic organizations such as BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and will likely speed up these talks if things continue to go downhill with the west.

Turkey has long been a crucial ally of the US, playing a key role throughout the cold war as the NATO ally on the Soviet Union’s doorstep, but now this relationship may have run its course. Erdogan clearly has a specific path planned for Turkey and this clearly isn’t going to work for Washington much longer. Erdogan has options, no doubt, but he will need to be wary because the US doesn’t forgive easily.