De­spite sanc­tions, Tur­key will risk even more dis­rup­tion with the US in the fu­ture

The National - News - - OPINION - RYAN BOHL Ryan Bohl is a Mid­dle East and North Africa an­a­lyst at geopo­lit­i­cal risk con­sul­tancy Strat­for, fo­cused on re­gional strat­egy, se­cu­rity and pol­i­tics

From all ap­pear­ances, Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan and his US coun­ter­part Don­ald Trump seemed to be get­ting along swim­mingly at their sum­mit last Wed­nes­day. Mr Trump de­clared he was a “big fan” of Mr Er­do­gan and claimed the two had been “very good friends” from “day one”. But be­low the sur­face, it was clear Mr Er­do­gan was wit­ness­ing the lim­its of his re­la­tion­ship with Mr Trump. Congress’s anger over Tur­key’s re­cent of­fen­sive in Syria has not been de­fused and the pres­sure re­mains for sanc­tions af­ter Mr Er­do­gan re­fused to scrap his deal with Rus­sia to buy its S-400 de­fence sys­tem. In­deed, 17 con­gres­sional law­mak­ers put their names to a let­ter urg­ing the US pres­i­dent to con­sider re­scind­ing the in­vi­ta­tion.

The two Nato al­lies face more prob­lems in the com­ing months as Tur­key charts an in­de­pen­dent course and the US at­tempts to pull it back into the fold. But the more the US im­poses penal­ties on Tur­key, the more Ankara will di­ver­sify its re­la­tion­ships – in some cases, by look­ing to Amer­ica’s ri­vals in Rus­sia and China.

Mr Er­do­gan’s visit was de­signed to smooth over ten­sions caused by Tur­key’s pur­chase of the Rus­sian S-400 mis­sile sys­tem and its in­va­sion of north­east­ern Syria. Mr Trump has fought hard in public to main­tain Tur­key’s im­age as a re­li­able ally. He has trum­peted a cease­fire that US Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence man­aged to bro­ker in Syria’s north­east be­tween Tur­key and the Syr­ian-based and US-backed YPG, even though the fight­ing did not com­pletely cease. He has at­tempted to por­tray the fight­ing be­tween Tur­key and the Kurds as a squab­ble rather than a decades-long con­flict. In so do­ing, Mr Trump has hoped to min­imise the tur­moil of the US pull­out from Syria and to fend off crit­ics of his for­eign pol­icy.

It has not worked. Amer­ica’s Congress, in rare bi­par­ti­san fash­ion, has been keep­ing both the S-400 and the Turk­ish in­va­sion of Syria alive. An Oval Of­fice meet­ing be­tween top

GOP se­na­tors and Mr Er­do­gan de­scended into ac­cu­sa­tions over Tur­key’s Kur­dish poli­cies. What­ever hopes Mr Trump might have had of smooth­ing over re­la­tions be­tween Mr Er­do­gan and Congress quickly evap­o­rated.

At its core, this ten­sion is be­ing driven by chang­ing geopol­i­tics. Nato is no longer a bul­wark against an ex­pan­sion­ist Rus­sia. Tur­key is not on the bor­der of the dis­mem­bered Soviet Union, fend­ing off Rus­sian in­flu­ence; it is a ma­jor re­gional state bor­der­ing an un­sta­ble Syria and Iraq and man­ag­ing an oc­ca­sion­ally tense re­la­tion­ship with Iran. The US is in­volved in each of these coun­tries too but its in­ter­ests are dif­fer­ent from Tur­key’s. Ankara is, there­fore, chart­ing an in­de­pen­dent course de­signed to ad­dress strate­gic is­sues such as the war in Syria and gain ac­cess to cut­ting-edge mil­i­tary tech­nol­ogy that the US will not pro­vide. But as it does so, it is build­ing con­nec­tions to Amer­i­can ri­vals and clash­ing with US in­ter­ests.

This is fu­elling the US re­sponse. The US wants Tur­key to re­main in the western sphere of in­flu­ence while valu­ing Amer­i­can al­lies and in­ter­ests, as it did dur­ing the Cold War. It is wor­ried about global Rus­sian and Chi­nese in­flu­ence as well. As Tur­key di­ver­si­fies its arms and eco­nomic re­la­tion­ships, it is butting up against Amer­i­can in­ter­ests.

These in­ter­ests re­main strongly en­trenched in both the Pen­tagon and Congress. The Pen­tagon is lob­by­ing the rest of the ad­min­is­tra­tion to do what it can to both min­imise risks to the Amer­i­can mil­i­tary as Tur­key di­ver­si­fies and to keep Amer­ica’s com­mit­ments to its YPG al­lies at least par­tially alive. The US mil­i­tary sees Rus­sian arms pur­chases as a threat to its own as­sets; the S-400, for ex­am­ple, could learn to track and tar­get high-tech Nato air­craft. That in­for­ma­tion could then be leaked to the Rus­sians, un­der­cut­ting Nato’s tech­no­log­i­cal su­pe­ri­or­ity.

The more Rus­sian arms Tur­key pur­chases, the greater the risk of this sit­u­a­tion be­com­ing a re­al­ity. The Pen­tagon also wants to pre­serve some of its in­flu­ence with the YPG, in part out of loy­alty for its ser­vice in the bat­tle against ISIS and in part be­cause of its on­go­ing value to

Amer­ica’s Syr­ian strat­egy.

That Pen­tagon in­flu­ence reaches Congress, which adds an­other layer based on hu­man rights con­cerns. Congress is wor­ried not only about this Turk­ish drift to­wards in­de­pen­dence but also how Tur­key, es­pe­cially un­der Mr Er­do­gan, has not taken care­ful steps to pre­serve hu­man rights. Congress fears for the treat­ment of Syr­ian civil­ians at the hands of Turk­ish forces and its as­so­ci­ated prox­ies – wor­ries re­in­forced by re­ports from US in­tel­li­gence of po­ten­tial vi­o­la­tions al­ready be­ing com­mit­ted. Com­bined, this is a po­tent pres­sure able to over­ride Mr Trump’s pref­er­ence for closer re­la­tions with Tur­key.

Ankara can­not aban­don this di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion strat­egy. Not only would that be po­lit­i­cal sui­cide for Mr Er­do­gan to cave in to Amer­i­can de­mands at home but re­ly­ing on the US has not com­pletely ad­dressed Tur­key’s strate­gic needs. In­stead, Tur­key must ab­sorb what­ever US re­ac­tion there is, from sanc­tions to dis­rupted diplo­matic re­la­tions, be­cause the costs of hew­ing close to the US are much greater than what­ever pun­ish­ment the Amer­i­cans will mete out.

This means sanc­tions on Tur­key will be im­posed, but it will not per­suade Ankara to change its strat­egy. If any­thing, Tur­key will risk more dis­rup­tion with the US. A loom­ing is­sue is the US-led F-35 fighter jet devel­op­ment pro­gramme, which the Amer­i­cans un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously ejected Tur­key from. Ankara will be look­ing for a re­place­ment and Rus­sia has made it clear its Su-57 stealth fighter might be avail­able to Tur­key, should it so de­sire. That would again draw the ire of the US, with ac­com­pa­ny­ing con­se­quences – and Mr Er­do­gan would again brush off those con­se­quences if it saw the Su-57 as a vi­tal piece of equip­ment for his own re­gional strate­gies.

Such ten­sions don’t her­ald the end of the Nato re­la­tion­ship. But they are be­com­ing a fea­ture of it – leav­ing Tur­key and the US in a tur­bu­lent al­liance, strained by ir­rec­on­cil­able goals and un­der­cut­ting fu­ture co-op­er­a­tion in the Mid­dle East.

Nato is no longer a bul­wark against an ex­pan­sion­ist Rus­sia; it is an al­liance of­ten in search of a mis­sion

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