A waning moon over the empire

Pinched by the crisis, Erdogan is trying to reposition his country's economy, policies and trade on the international stage

Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the NATO summit last July. Relations between Turkey and the United States are the worst they’ve ever been in the history of relations between the two countries. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/Contrast
Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the NATO summit last July. Relations between Turkey and the United States are the worst they’ve ever been in the history of relations between the two countries. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/Contrast

Relations between Turkey and the United States are caught up in one of the worst crises in the history of dealings between the two countries since WWII, ever since Turkey, having become a member of NATO in 1950, began to play a strategic role in the United States' approach to the Middle East. The first stirrings of a conflict arose very clearly in the aftermath of the failed coup of 15 June 2016, orchestrated according to the Turkish government by the organisation headed by Fethullah Gülen, an imam in voluntary exile in Pennsylvania since 1999. The immediate request for the religious leader's extradition made by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Ergogan went unheeded not only by the Obama administration but also, rather surprisingly, by Trump's.  This gave rise to a dispute that came to a head in the Brunson pastor case.

Arrested in Turkey in October 2106 under a charge of terrorism and of having backed both the PKK and Gülen's network, the reverend Andrew Brunson has been at the centre of a fierce clash between Trump and Erdogan which has major repercussions even of an economic nature. With an unprecedented move against the Turkish ally, the White House, appealing to Magnitsky's Law, imposed financial sanctions against two Turkish ministers who wereconsidered responsible for the American pastor's arrest. He later also decided to double tariffs on aluminium and steel, causing a serious collapse of Turkish lira which compounded the country's developing financial crisis. In the month of August 2018 the Turkish currency dropped to its all-time low against the dollar and only started to recover after Brunson's release last October.

In the meantime the collapse of the lira highlighted the weakness of the Turkish economy and its very extensive reliance on foreign investment and thus the heavy foreign indebtedness of Turkish banks and companies which makes it prone to speculation by financial markets. President Erdogan, whose success has always been linked to the extraordinary economic development experienced by Turkey in the Noughties, faced with the collapse of the Turkish currency, decided to increase tariffs on certain American products imported into Turkey and resorted to strongly nationalist rhetoric while claiming that the United States' decision was equivalent to a form of economic warfare against his country. An argument which, besides having national traction, also seemed to set the stage for the possibility that the country would be open to new economic and trade alliances, as well as political ones.

And it is these very alliances, and particularly Turkey's sidling up to Russia, that have soured relations between Turkey and the United States. After the diplomatic crisis between Russia and Turkey which followed the downing of the Russian military jet in 2015, diplomatic relations have recently intensified well beyond a simple normalisation. The two countries have now committed to cooperate on a number of strategic issues that also include the energy and military sectors. The Turkish government's decision to purchase Russian made S-400 anti-aircraft missiles seriously jeopardises Turkish participation in the F-35 programme, underway since 2002, and the United States have announced a blockade on the transfer of the missiles that Turkey has undertaken to buy. It's the first time that a NATO country decides to opt to deploy a Russian manufactured weapon system and this entails a number of problems from a defence perspective seeing as Turkey also manufactures F35 components and its pilots are trained on American soil and all this could increase the likelihood that sensitive information could be acquired by the Russians. Besides the considerable international pressure and the United States' threats, the Turkish Defence Minister Halusi Akar has announced that the Russian missiles will be deployed next October.

So while a backpedal on the S-400 front looks unlikely, cooperation between Erdogan and Putin has developed in other areas. Turkey has contributed in a very decisive way to the construction of the gas pipeline that will enable Russia to extend its gas supply contracts beyond Europe and include the eastern Mediterranean regions, right at a time when the United States is putting pressure on Europe to secure a larger share of the continent's energy procurement. The completion of a long underwater stretch of the TurkStream was celebrated during a ceremony in Istanbul in November, with Vladimir Putin also in attendance and that became an opportunity to bolster relations between the two countries and, on the Turkish side, to provide a further demonstration of its intention of engaging in an independent foreign policy in the Middle East.

On the Syrian front Turkey seems to have many irons in the fire in a very delicate balancing act in which, in order to pursue its national interests and safeguard its key role in the region, it has had to hope between agreements with the United States on the one hand and Russia and Iran on the other. The successful negotiations between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the Turkish foreign minister on the withdrawal of Kurdish militias from the city of Manbij seemed to ease the tension caused by the United States' military backing of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that the Erdogan governments considers to be an extension of the PKK and thus to all intents and purposes a terrorist organisation. However, the Manbij roadmap was by no means a smooth transition and in the meantime Turkey wasted no time in reaching an agreement with Russia on a truce which led to the creation of a demilitarised zone around Idlib and the continuation of the political and military discussions held in Astana (Kazakhstan) which also featured Iran. The demilitarisation of Idlib and more in general the openings towards Russia and Iran are the result of the intense diplomatic endeavours through which Erdogan has tried to establish Turkey as playing a decisive role played in solving regional crises, as he himself stated in his address at the General Assembly of the United Nations. On the same occasion he also criticized the use of economic sanctions as a political weapon, underlining once again his differences with American policies.

Turkey, although one of the eight countries that isexempted from sanctions, has strong commercial ties with Iran and continues to criticize these measures, which are believed to pose a threat to the global balance of power and are viewed as an imperialist tool. Diplomatic discussions focusing on the Iran sanctions also include the Hakan Atilla case, in which the manager of the Turkish bank Hallbank Turkey was detained in the United States charged with having allowed Iran to circumvent the sanctions by investing in United States' funds.

In actual fact while relations with the United States are critical on various fronts, it's clear that Turkey, with administrative elections in March and a recession in the offing, is trying to reposition itself on the international stage and seeking fresh economic and commercial support.  In this context, the murder of the Saudi journalist Khashoggi, which took place at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, has provided Erdogan with ideal leverage. By reporting the Riyadh regime and calling for truth and justice for Khashoggi, the Turkish President has heightened tension with the Saudis and enhanced his position with Qatar – which had previously helped Turkey during its economic crisis – and re-established the country's claim as a model in the Arab-Islamic world. He's also trying to gain renewed credibility on the international front, at a time when human rights violations in his country are the worse they've been for years.

@lea_nocera

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