Middle East In Focus
The relationship between the United States and its NATO ally Turkey continues to deteriorate, as the two countries pursue a path of brinkmanship rather than cooperation. Some have dated the breakdown in the relationship as far back as the early days of the Iraq war, after Turkey refused the use of one of its bases for forward deployment purposes. Others point to the chaotic alliances and proxy conflicts of the Syrian civil war or the muted U.S. response to the 2016 failed coup attempt in Ankara. But the current stand-off, at least on the surface, is the result of a more innocuous disagreement: the detention in Turkey of a U.S. pastor, Andrew Brunson. The United States has threatened sanctions and has blacklisted high ranking Turkish officials, while Turkey has refused to give in to demands by President Donald Trump to release the American pastor.
Many in Turkey and the region have wondered why the White House would risk so much for the sake of the release of the U.S. pastor. Writing for the pro-government Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah, Talha Köse blames U.S. domestic politics and the existence of “certain lobby groups” for the tit-for-tat between the two countries: “Both countries will lose from a further escalation of tensions due to the Brunson crisis. The Brunson crisis seems to be a subject that is related more to domestic political issues for the Trump administration.... Washington has not gained much from such a policy but still insists on it because of the interests of certain lobby groups. The Turkish-American relations and strategic cooperation are more important than the short-term interests of narrow circles and interest groups in the U.S. It will be very difficult to fix the relations and rebuild the trust between the two countries, but it is still the most beneficial option for both countries.”
Asharq Alawsat’s Abdulrahman al-Rashed also points to Mr. Trump’s need to shore up support with his evangelical base, while also noting that the Turkish president has the ability to defuse the situation right away: “I have not seen a relationship get more complicated than the American-Turkish relationship, although it is supposed to be easy considering the NATO bond which they share. The temporary disputes can be easily resolved especially since Erdogan became a ruler with wider jurisdictions following the constitutional amendments and which no Turkish leader has enjoyed since the military rule. Ankara’s refusal to release the American pastor benefits the American presidency in its electoral campaign which promised its hardcore evangelical supporters that it will not be silent if Turkey does not release him.”
However, Turkish commentator Gülnur Aybet, also writing for Daily Sabah, believes that Turkey must stand its ground as a matter of principle and that the U.S. president’s behavior may contribute to an increase in anti-Americanism in Turkey: “but it seems that the United States and for that matter some of Turkey's other allies are still under the impression that you tell, then you yell if necessary and somehow the Turks will just get it done. It is time to wake up from this delusion. The condescending tone of President Trump's tweet disregarding Turkey's judiciary, pronouncing someone who is under trial in another country innocent before the conclusion of his trial, telling a country's authorities which decision they "ought" to make, will undoubtedly exacerbate the wave of anti-Americanism in Turkey that has already reached an unprecedented level.”
Melih Altinok makes a similar argument, while explicitly drawing a connection between the Brunson case and the Turkish president’s insistence for the extradition of Fethullah Gülen, whom Mr. Erdogan accuses of masterminding the July 2016 coup attempt: “The U.S. administration evidently wants to use the Brunson issue as leverage in its bargains on other subjects and it is doing so by hindering the resolution of the issue. But regardless of their aims and underlying messages, the U.S. officials need to understand that they must conform to two minimum requirements while establishing relations with Turkey. First, you cannot give orders to the Turkish administration and judiciary. Second, Ankara will not accept any of your judicial demands on the basis of reciprocity principle unless you extradite Fetullah Gülen, the mastermind of the July 15 coup attempt.”
Sayed Abdel-Meguid insist that the U.S. refusal to accede to Turkey’s demands for the extradition of Mr. Gülen is only one of the factors complicating the release of the pastor. In an op-ed for the Egyptian weekly newspaper Al Ahram, Abdel-Meguid asserts that “Ankara’s relationship with the Trump administration has approached a brink and, until recently, there have been few signs of efforts to avert collision. Much to Erdogan’s fury, Washington has not responded to his insistent demands to stop supporting the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) which the regime in Ankara has branded terrorist. Nor has the US moved a step closer to extraditing the Islamist preacher Fathullah Gülen whom the Erdogan regime claims masterminded the coup attempt in mid-July 2016.”
Finally, writing for the Saudi daily Arab News, Yasar Yakis notes that concerns about the impact of the current stand-off on Turkey’s economy may ultimately force the hand of the Turkish government: “A contentious issue that has to be solved through negotiations between two sovereign states is being solved by the US through a unilateral action. Turkey rightly announced it would retaliate in kind. The US action is the first such measure directed at the ministers of an allied country.... Ankara had to retaliate because the nation’s pride was bruised but, if these reciprocal retaliations escalate, Turkey will suffer more than the US. In cognizance of this bitter reality, Turkey started to focus its efforts on defusing the tension, but the unconsidered steps taken earlier provided the US with the upper hand and it is now making the most of it.”