Turkish extortion opens another US front in Middle East

The Turks no longer have the luxury of playing both sides of the ex-Cold War.

The Americans have moved from verbal threats to action. Turkish pilots were taken off the F-35 fighter jets and their training suspended. Ankara must choose between purchasing the Russian S-400 air defence system and buying US fighter jets. Turkey can’t have it both ways.

The saying goes: “There is a whole world behind the hills.” Same thing with the US Congress's decision to impose sanctions on Ankara because of the Russian missile deal. Behind this decision, there is one brief message: The era of Turkish extortion is over and those who are not with us are against us, even if they happen to be NATO members. Playing with Uncle Sam can be harmful to your health.

The Turks no longer have the luxury of playing both sides of the ex-Cold War. Whenever they wanted to pressure US President Donald Trump, they’d flirt with Russian President Vladimir Putin and vice versa. It is time for them to choose between the two.

It’s OK for Trump to hold hands with the Russians but not for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It’s a shameful unfairness but nevertheless understandable for two reasons.

The first is that cooperation and coordination between Washington and Moscow in Syria was not aimed against Ankara, while Moscow found in Ankara the perfect Trojan Horse through which it could slip into the Friends of Syria Group and NATO. Turkey sold out the Syrian opposition factions one after the other so it could occupy Afrin and parts of north-western Syria and sold the security of NATO’s southern border in exchange for the Russian S-400 defence system.

The second reason for placing Turkey on the United States’ list of potential enemies is that Erdogan had gone too far in blackmailing the West. Both the Europeans and the Americans are fed up with him. At times, he would blackmail them for his own electoral and propaganda purposes. At other times he would blackmail them for some agenda in foreign policy.

Now that matters have reached NATO’s borders and the national security of its member countries, the Americans and the Europeans have had enough.

Turkey had a taste of Washington’s wrath a few months ago in the affair of American pastor Andrew Brunson. The Turkish lira collapsed under US sanctions and Erdogan had to ask for mercy and forgiveness. The sanctions over the Russian missile deal are not likely to be lighter than previous ones and Erdogan's economy will not stand up to them, either.

Regarding the US reaction to his brazen blackmailing, Erdogan is not only afraid of economic sanctions but also fears American support -- and European backing as well -- of the Turkish opposition against his rule and his party. It was that kind of support that contributed to Erdogan's defeat in recent municipal elections in several Turkish cities, led by Istanbul and Ankara.

It is true that Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party -- Erdogan's party -- fiddled around with the elections and received a court ruling ordering new elections in Istanbul but Erdogan’s hostility to Washington and Brussels could renew his defeat in that city, a defeat to be added to his many defeats on many a front. This time, no biased judiciary can come to his rescue.

The US F-35 announcement reveals the opening of another Trump front in the region. It may be an unwise move if what the American president wants is to mobilise allies on the Iranian issue, for who can guarantee that Ankara will not use this to extort the United States again?

When Washington imposed its sanctions on Iran because of its nuclear programme, Tehran has long used Ankara as a backdoor through which it escaped them.

Baha al-Awam is a Syrian writer. 

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.