After Erdogan’s election win, Turkey will continue to cause concerns in the US
WASHINGTON — On the day US President Donald Trump congratulated Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan on his re-election, a far more significant event took place in a nearly empty hearing room in the US Capitol complex.
A senior US official explained the difficulty the Trump administration will continue to face as it struggles to coerce and cajole Turkey, its NATO ally, into being more of a partner and less of an antagonist.
With Erdogan winning re-election, Turkey will continue to cause concerns in the United States as the country moves to buy missile-defence systems from Russia, detains Americans, including a Christian minister, and maintains a state of emergency, US Assistant Secretary of State Wess Mitchell told a handful of US senators at a hearing June 26.
Turkey, however, is also a “crucial ally and partner,” a “steadfast partner” in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) and “indispensable component in counterbalancing Iran,” Mitchell said.
“In the period after the election, our approach is going to be to continue to find those areas where we can cooperate and strengthen the relationship,” Mitchell added. “Turkey is a strong ally and partner that has legitimate security concerns. So we’re going to continue to try to strike that balance.”
While the Trump administration continues its carrot-and-stick strategy with Turkey, the US Congress will push for more stick and less carrot. On June 18, the Senate voted to block the planned sale of US-made F-35 fighter jets to Turkey to protest the country’s plan to buy a Russian anti-aircraft weapons system and its detention of Andrew Brunson, a US citizen and long-time resident of Turkey who is pastor of a small church in Izmir.
“We have to make it clear to him [Erdogan] that some of the actions they’re engaging in are not acceptable and there are going to be consequences,” US Senator Jeanne Shaheen said. Shaheen, a Democrat, sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and sponsored the bill barring the sale of fighter jets. The measure faces action in the US House of Representatives.
Adam Schiff, an influential Democrat in the House, was more blunt, writing on Twitter on June 25: “Erdogan ‘won’ re-election in Turkey this weekend only by decimating the opposition through arrests, violence and squashing freedom of the press. Turkey’s descent into autocracy is another reminder that democracy is under assault worldwide. DO NOT CONGRATULATE.”
Erdogan spokesman Ibrahim Kalin replied to Schiff on Twitter: “President Erdogan certainly does not need YOUR congratulations. Turkish people have spoken up. You need to shut up.”
“There are very poisoned relations between Turkey and Congress,” Amanda Sloat, a former US deputy assistant secretary of state, said at a panel discussion on Turkey. Describing an “innate hostility towards Turkey in Washington,” Sloat warned against driving Erdogan away from its NATO allies.
“My plea for US and EU is not to turn away from Turkey,” Sloat said. “Russia is seeking to take advantage of this growing rift between Turkey and the West.”
However, the United States needs to take a hard stance and make clear that it will impose sanctions on Turkey if it buys Russian arms and “that there are consequences for detaining Americans in Turkish prisons,” Shaheen said in an interview. “As a NATO ally, we expect them to perform in certain ways, not to go after other NATO allies.”
Senator Ron Johnson, a Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, told Mitchell at the hearing that “Turkey’s treatment of Pastor Brunson is simply outrageous and I think they need to understand every member of Congress is highly concerned about it.” Brunson, 50, has been detained since October 2016 on disputed charges of supporting a terrorist organisation and espionage.
Mitchell said Brunson’s imprisonment “is as manifest a case of unjust detention as we’ve seen” and that the release of Brunson and approximately two dozen other US citizens being detained is “at the forefront of our agenda with Turkey. It tops our list when we talk to the Turks.”
Mitchell acknowledged the potential damage if Turkey follows through on its plan to buy Russia’s S-400 antiaircraft system.
“We have to put this in the context that this is a crucial ally and partner. What they’re doing for us and with us on defeating ISIS is absolutely essential,” Mitchell said. Buying Russian arms “has the potential to spike the punch and we can’t be any clearer than saying that both privately and publicly. A decision on S-400 will qualitatively change the US-Turkish relationship in a way that would be very difficult to repair.”
Mitchell’s diplomatic response indicates how the Trump administration will try to push Erdogan while being careful not to alienate him.
Edward Stafford, a former US diplomat in Ankara, wrote in a column for Ahval that “US relations with Turkey will continue to be managed professionally with a focus on areas of mutual interest,” such as defeating terrorism and stabilising the Middle East. On “heated issues,” such as Turkey’s increasing closeness to Russia and Iran, the Trump administration “will strive to keep tensions from boiling over,” Stafford wrote.
Thomas Frank is a correspondent in Washington.
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