I have just authorized a doubling of Tariffs on Steel and Aluminum with respect to Turkey as their currency, the Turkish Lira, slides rapidly downward against our very strong Dollar! Aluminum will now be 20% and Steel 50%. Our relations with Turkey are not good at this time!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 10, 2018
And that, dear readers, is how President Trump sent the Turkish Lira plunging nearly 15 percent.
U.S.-Turkey relations have not been good for some time—to the extent that it is difficult to mark specific events that have led to the current crisis (each incremental step, over an extended period of time, contributing to the tension). But if we were to try to put our finger on it, it might be fair to say the current situation finds its origins, in the different—and at times competing—national interests on display at the height of the Syrian crisis around four years ago.
In Syria, the United States has viewed the defeat of ISIS as an absolute priority. As a result, Kurdish groups, the most effective militia at stymieing the territorial advance of the Islamic State, were armed and trained by U.S. military forces. Turkey, for its part, viewed the Syrian-Kurdish militias as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—a militant political party that has been deemed a terrorist organization by both countries for its role in a nearly 35-year conflict in Turkey’s southeast region. The U.S., through portrayals in the media, was clear to separate—ideologically and strategically—the Kurdish militias fighting against the Islamic State from the PKK.
Turkey’s priorities in Syria, the toppling of the regime led by Bashar al-Assad and undermining multi-country Kurdish unity, led to claims of it working closely with Syrian-opposition forces which were deemed questionable by the West. Recently, as the Syrian war has calmed, both countries have moved closer on these particular issues (Turkey has solidified its military hold on Syrian territory to block Kurdish advances and the U.S. has stepped back its support of Kurdish militias). New issues, however, have emerged in their stead.
Though the pressure being applied by both countries during the Syrian crisis was not very visible to the public eye (i.e. there was no measurable change in policy by either the U.S. or Turkey), the competing interests in Syria has had reverberations. Aram Hamparian, Executive Director of the ANCA, marks this moment as a move by Turkey from an alliance relationship to one of a transactional basis with the U.S..
For example, the disagreements over Syria served as prelude to the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. Since that day in July 2016, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been on a singular mission: securing and expanding his grip on power as well as carrying out revenge on all those perceived to have had a role in the coup.
Erdogan blames Fethullah Gulen for the coup attempt that included the bombing of the Turkish Parliament building in the capital of Ankara and the deaths of over 200 people. Gulen, who is the head of a world-wide Islamic movement referred to as “Hizmet” (or “Service” in English), maintains an extensive network of supporters in influential positions throughout Turkish society. Once an ally of Erdogan’s, Gulen is said to have played an important role in Erdogan’s battle against the secular establishment and ultimate rise to power.
A significant turning point in the Erdogan-Gulen alliance came in 2013 when Gulenist loyalists began a judicial process against those closely tied to Erdogan in a corruption probe. From that time forward, they have been openly at odds, each aiming to strip power from the other.
Erdogan claims the 2016 coup was a last-ditch effort by Gulenists as the net was closing around them. Gulen claims the coup was orchestrated by Erdogan himself in the drive for complete power. This last claim has few adherents and little evidence.
In the immediate aftermath of the coup, Erdogan has tightened his grip on Turkey. After winning the recent elections, he vastly expanded its powers. He has cracked down on those opposed to him, even those without any ties to Gulen. According to a 2017 report by Freedom House, journalists working in the country’s predominantly Kurdish southeast faced “serious obstacles to their reporting—such as threats, physical violence, and criminal investigations—in the context of a counterinsurgency campaign against Kurdish separatist fighters.” Residents in the area also experienced lapses in internet service and access to social media platforms, and in one instance, a journalist was killed while working in the region.
The White House responded to the coup by voicing support to Turkey in a statement, “The President and Secretary agreed that all parties in Turkey should support the democratically-elected government of Turkey, show restraint, and avoid any violence or bloodshed.” Clearly foreshadowing the politically motivated crackdowns to come and their impact on democracy in Turkey. It is telling that the U.S. did not unequivocally label the anti-Erdogan forces as responsible for the coup, using language like “all-parties” to include the Erdogan regime in their call for “restraint, and avoid any violence or bloodshed.”
in 2017 after a number of Turkish citizens employed by the U.S. government were detained. The U.S. in turn stopped issuing visas to Turkish citizens until it was assured that no further employees were under threat of similar actions. Turkey soon followed suit in blocking visas for U.S. citizens. There are conflicting reports on how the impasse was finally overcome a few months later.
But perhaps the most dramatic prism through which we can view U.S.-Turkey relations is through that of Fethullah Gulen, who Erdogan blames for the 2016 coup. Gulen currently resides in Pennsylvania in self-imposed exile since 1999. And therein lies the rub. Turkey has demanded the extradition of Gulen and clearly places it at the top of its “asks” of the U.S. The U.S. has refused to relent in this matter.. But why? While Turkey’s interest in securing Gulen is easily understood, the U.S. position is less so. What is driving the U.S.’s continuing protection of Erdogan’s rival? In this, the ground is ripe for conspiracies.
Claims linking Gulen to the CIA date to the memoir of a former Turkish intelligence officer. U.S. reluctance to hand over Gulen has led some commentators in Turkey to link Americans in the attempted coup.
What is known for sure is that Gulen’s application for permanent residence in the U.S. was initially denied, but then overturned at least in part based on the support of two individuals with ties to the CIA, George Fidas and Graham Fuller. Turkish prosecutors have issued an arrest warrant for Fuller linking him to both Gulen and the attempted coup.
All of Turkeys resentment towards the U.S. seems to have come to a head this past summer, in a case in which an American pastor living in Turkey, Andrew Brunson, was charged with treason and detained in Turkey. The charges against Brunson date back to the 2016 coup attempt. In September 2017, in a classic tit-for-tat, Erdogan made a statement directed towards the U.S.: “You have a pastor, too [referring to Gulen]. Give him to us, then we will try Brunson and give him to you.”
In another provocative turn of events, in January of this year Mehmet Hakan Atilla, an employee of Halkbank with close ties to Erdogan, was convicted of evading U.S. sanctions of Iran. He was later sentenced to 32 months in a U.S. prison.
Trump has not taken lightly to Erdogan’s threats and used his favorite platform, Twitter, to voice disapproval. Some of his tweets, like the one prefacing this editorial, have stark economic repercussions. Erdogan, for his part, seems to have chosen to respond in kind with every step made by the U.S.: suspending visas, initiating criminal proceedings and threatening sanctions. But with the U.S. now employing economic pressure, it would appear Turkey has few available options.
Turkey is now openly threatening to find other geopolitical partners (read: Russia), which makes the joint statement issued last February reaffirming the ties between the two countries feel like a very long time ago. The U.S. clearly has discomfort over the recent agreement for Turkey to purchase Russian S-400 surface-to-air missiles, and Trump is set to sign the National Defense Authorization Act which will block the delivery of F-35’s to Turkey until a Pentagon report is completed on the impact to U.S.-Turkey relations.
In all of this, the implications for Armenian interests are complicated. While initially, any disagreement between Turkey and the U.S. would appear to be positive for Armenian-American interests (after all, if Trump and Erdogan are on poor terms, what would stop Trump from using the G-word next April?), the problem is that longterm, the rapprochement between Russia and Turkey may lead to security issues for territorial Armenia which the Diaspora should remain cognizant of. Though it’s unlikely Turkey would use its new relations with Russia (a strategic ally of Armenia) to push for anti-Armenian policies (they do, after all, have much bigger geopolitical fish to fry in the region), vigilance on these developments moving forward is key.
For now, though, the fact that all of these tensions are unfolding in front of the public eye is not just entertaining (like the idea that a simple tweet could disrupt Turkey’s economy), it’s also unprecedented and vital to our understanding of how foreign policy is changing in the era of Trump.