Amid sound and fury over looming key presidential and parliamentary elections, there are some very important developments in the field of foreign policy that carry the risk of further deteriorating ties between Turkey and the United States. The state of bilateral relations between the two NATO allies constitutes a difficult complexity due to many mingled problems.
The latest is a measure added to a U.S. Senate committee defense policy bill by two senators - one Democratic and the other Republican - that stipulates preventing Turkey from purchasing Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets.
The two motives behind this move are the continued detention of American Pastor Andrew Brunson and Turkey’s procurement of S-400 anti-ballistic missile system from Russia. Brunson has been in jail since late 2016 on terror-related charges and could be sentenced to up to 35 years in jail. His detention continues to be one of the top issues in any bilateral conversation between Ankara and Washington, particularly after U.S. President Donald Trump had tweeted on the matter.
The Senate measure comes just 10 days before the scheduled meeting between Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on June 4 in Washington, where both top diplomats will review all aspects of bilateral ties with a particular emphasis on Syria.
Pompeo has been very vocal on ties with Turkey in the last few days – and he has not necessarily been trying to be diplomatic. “We need their behavior to reflect the objectives of NATO, and that’s what we’re diligently working to do: to get them to rejoin NATO, in a way, with their actions, consistent with what we’re trying to achieve in NATO. And not take actions that undermine its efforts,” he told the House Foreign Affairs Committee during a hearing. Calling on Turkey “to rejoin NATO,” Pompeo also said “Turkey’s trend is wrong.”
Ahead of Çavuşoğlu-Pompeo meeting, a joint Turkish-American working group came together in Ankara on May 25 to particularly discuss the pillars of coordination of two countries in Manbij province of Syria. This is a good sign that diplomatic channels are still open, despite the fact that Turkey has withdrawn its ambassador to Washington for consultations after the latter’s opening its embassy in Jerusalem.
A draft deal between Turkey and the U.S. early this year suggested the withdrawal of Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militants from Manbij to east of the Euphrates under the “Manbij model,” which could also be implemented in some other provinces in northern Syria. It is not certain whether the U.S. will agree to apply the same model to other provinces in Syria because of the fact that its partnership with the YPG is still ongoing and necessary for the full elimination of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
At a meeting at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Pompeo touched on the situation in Syria and the ongoing row with Turkey, expressing his hope that “U.S. and Turkish forces will avoid any risk from close encounters in northern Syria.” His remarks should be interpreted in a way that the risk is still there and will remain so if bilateral efforts to resolve the situation fail.
As can be seen, the Turkey-U.S. line is full of heavy problems with a potential to derail ties between the two long-standing allies. On Syria, there is an existing diplomatic channel that could come up with a positive outcome so that the risks in the field could be averted.
On military sales, it is getting clearer that the U.S. will increase its pressure on Turkey to stop its NATO ally’s procurement of S-400 air defense systems from Russia. The U.S. secretary of state has bluntly said that Turkey has not yet deployed them on its soil, implying that there is still time to convince the Turkish government. That is why they are about to present a better offer for the sale of U.S.-made Patriots to Turkey.
The recent moves at Congress add yet another complication to this already messy situation: It’s either F-35s or S-400s.