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Welcome to the New U.S.–Turkish Relationship

The Trump administration is feuding with Erdogan's government over American pastor Andrew Brunson. But behind the particulars of this case, there's also a new geopolitical reality to reckon with.

Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images

Sanctioning another NATO ally is a remarkable move. As such, the Trump administration’s sanctions on Turkey’s justice and interior ministers last week, over the detention of American pastor Andrew Brunson, increased fears about the unraveling of a formerly strong alliance. Meetings between senior U.S. and Turkish officials in Washington on Wednesday failed to resolve the matter. U.S.–Turkish relations appear broken, with little prospects of repair—a new geopolitical reality.    

Once upon a time, Turkey and the United States enjoyed a close partnership. Even when various issues, such as a divided Cyprus, caused frustration from time to time, the United States relied on Ankara and, particularly, Incirlik, a military base in southern Turkey. The U.S. helped to construct Incirlik in 1955, which served as a key airbase in the region during the Cold War and after, particularly during the first Gulf War in 1991. Turkey depended on U.S. aid.

The rift between Turkey and the United States started in 2003, after George W. Bush invaded Iraq, which sits on Turkey’s southeastern border. The ensuing chaos and war affected the entire region, Turkey included. Relations improved temporarily when Barack Obama took office in 2008. The U.S. president landed in Ankara on his second international trip, making Turkey his first destination in the Middle East. Obama initially embraced then Prime Minister (now president) Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government as a “model” for other Arab countries undergoing protests in 2011. But that relationship deteriorated as the Syrian civil war on Turkey’s border (and associated refugee crisis) worsened, while Erdogan faced nationwide government protests and corruption allegations. 

Ankara’s ties to Washington have further eroded due to longstanding tension over a Turkish cleric living in exile in Pennsylvania—Fetullah Gulen. Once close collaborators, Gulen and Erodgan started to drift apart in 2010, after differences on how to deal with Israel following the attack on a Turkish flotilla. The relationship quickly turned nasty, with Erdogan accusing Gulen and his followers of releasing tapes that exposed corrupt practices in 2013. The Erdogan government held Gulen and his followers responsible for engineering an attempted coup in July 2016, and has demanded that the United States hand Gulen over.

Security is another issue. The United States has gravitated to the Syrian Kurds, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq. The YPG has long fought ISIS—and has, in certain instances, succeeded. Unfortunately, Turkey does not look kindly on the YPG or the Kurds in general. The Kurds are Turkey’s largest minority and have long had tensions with the Turkish state over rights, which erupted in a war in southeast Turkey in the 1980s. Ankara fears that the Kurds will form an autonomous region along the Turkish border and catalyze Turkey’s Kurds to breakaway territory from Turkey. Earlier this year, Turkey attacked YPG forces in Syria and actually occupied the Syrian city of Afrin.

Ankara seemed originally to believe that President Trump, who owns properties in Turkey, would represent a reset in U.S.–Turkish relations. Indeed, in Brussels last month Trump remarked that he liked Erdogan and gave him a fist bump. That bromance was short.

Enter Brunson. In 2016, following a failed coup, Erdogan’s government began a large-scale crackdown on dissent. In the aftermath, Brunson was one of many arrested and accused of espionage and terrorism—of being in league with the Muslim Gulenists.

The current U.S.–Turkish feud feeds political narratives in both countries. Backing Brunson plays to the American president’s base—all the more conspicuously so given that NASA scientist Serkan Golge, a dual Turkish–U.S. citizen, is also being held in Turkey, serving out a seven-and-a-half-year sentence for charges similar to those being brought against Brunson. Golge is Muslim, unlike Brunson, whom Trump has called “a great Christian” and “innocent man of faith.” The Trump administration has said nothing about Golge’s detention.

The resistance to letting the pastor go plays similarly for Erdogan: Turkey’s economy has been declining. Inflation is up, and the central bank predicts a rise in food prices. These sanctions are perfect diversions and props for Erdogan to use to show how “outside” forces are plotting to ruin Turkey.

But ultimately, the current conflict reflects a larger shift in orientation. With President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s troubling consolidation of power in the past year, the spat over Brunson is likely only the beginning of a series of conflicts, in which the United States will have little leverage or bargaining power.  Turkey’s economy is in bad shape, and the sanctions since last week have caused the Turkish lira to fall still further; but the fundamental reality is that Turkey is not as vulnerable to American actions as it once was. The European Union is Turkey’s main trading partner, with $84.7 billion in exports. Trade between the United States and Turkey, by comparison, amounts to only $9 billion. Foreign investors in Turkey also tend to be European, not American. U.S. foreign direct investment inflows are exceeded also by the Gulf countries.

As Trump alienates Europe, Turkey has used the opportunity to renew relations with its neighbors. The abandonment of the Iran nuclear deal is certainly a unifying point between Brussels and Ankara. Both capitals are eager to keep the Iran nuclear deal—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—alive, with Iranian oil accounting for nearly half of all Turkish imports in the first half of 2018. At Angela Merkel’s invitation, Erdogan will pay a state visit to Germany in September. Meanwhile, Erdogan is organizing a summit with France, Germany, and Russia to discuss Syria. He has also restored relations with The Netherlands, which had gone off the rails last year. 

It is unlikely that the United States and Turkey will resolve their differences anytime soon. But given Turkey’s geostrategic location—in the backyard of Russia, and bordering Iraq, Iran, and Syria—the United States has an interest in maintaining the relationship. Turkey, meanwhile, does not need to add to its economic woes. The hope, at this point, is that as both Erdogan and Trump play to their bases, they’ll refrain from actions that would be hard to walk back from without embarrassment to either leader’s large ego. Despite the shifts of recent decades, the United States and Turkey still need each other. And the temporary political benefits domestically probably don’t outweigh that.