There have been some timid steps taken to save Turkish-American relations from their current difficult situation.
One was a statement by Turkey’s presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin. In an online meeting hosted last week by the Atlantic Council, a nonpartisan US think tank, he said there had been a delay in the deployment of the Russian-manufactured S-400 air defense system because of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. Although Kalin completed his sentence by saying that the deployment would still move forward, this may have awakened hope in the US that the Turks may be looking for ways to reconsider their decision to purchase the S-400 system.
Turkey is facing several US sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act because of the S-400. But the Senate majority leader is withholding the draft bill, probably in the hope that Turkey could eventually give in.
In December, the US Congress also agreed to lift an arms sale embargo on Cyprus, which disturbed Turkey very much. Ankara had done everything it could in the past to avoid this, but this time the Cypriot lobby carried more weight. Congress’ unhappiness with Turkey was also visible in the resolutions adopted in both chambers recognizing the Ottoman administration’s treatment of the Armenians in 1915 as genocide. Congress also suspended Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet project, even though there are several administrative, economic and legal consequences that have to be sorted out.
Despite these setbacks to Turkish-US relations, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was counting on his personal friendship with his US counterpart Donald Trump. But it is unclear whether the latter will be able to do anything before the November presidential election.
American officials at all levels had insistently informed Turkey of the unavoidable consequences of purchasing the S-400 system
Another timid step toward a rapprochement was the charm offensive that Turkey launched by sending a COVID-19 relief package to the US, which included more than 500,000 surgical masks, 4,000 overalls, 2,000 liters of disinfectant, 1,500 pairs of goggles and 500 face shields. Erdogan approved this even though his own citizens were facing difficulties in accessing masks. Turkey deliberately extended this assistance through NATO so that it would be recorded in the alliance’s documents, in addition to the US and Turkey’s national archives. Turkey sent similar items to a total of 55 countries, probably to redress its tarnished image in the international arena. But medical assistance to the US matters more, because Turkey needs greater understanding from Washington.
Erdogan also sent a personal letter to Trump, writing: “I hope that, in the upcoming period, with the spirit of solidarity we have displayed during the pandemic, Congress and the US media will better understand the strategic importance of our relations.” This letter may be regarded as a plea to open a new page in Turkey-US relations, but there has not yet been any sign of a softening on the US side. The US ambassador in Ankara said it in as plain words as possible that American officials at all levels had insistently informed Turkey of the unavoidable consequences of purchasing the S-400 system.
A further softening step came last week, following an attack in the northern Syrian city of Afrin, when an explosives-rigged fuel truck killed dozens of civilians and at least six pro-Turkish Syrian fighters. The Turkish Defense Ministry announced that the security services had identified the suspected perpetrator through street cameras and arrested him. He had to be a Kurd since, in Turkey’s mind, such a terrorist act could only be committed by a Kurd. The US State Department did not waste any time in condemning the blast. This hasty move may have been to extend support to Turkey, but also to turn Ankara’s attention to other potential actors operating in Syria. Whatever the reason, this was another gesture of solidarity between these two NATO allies.
This situation in Turkish-American relations coincided with a development in Turkish-Russian ties. No joint communique could be issued at the end of an online meeting held last week by the foreign ministers of the three Astana process countries. Each country instead issued its own statement. One point that was emphasized in the Russian message was absent from Turkey’s: The need to separate the moderate opposition from the extremists in Idlib. This task was entrusted to Turkey in the previous Astana meetings, so Turkey is expected to do more to fulfill its promises. Turkey and Russia are aware that there are inherent difficulties in reconciling their differences in Syria.
Having come to the conclusion that cooperation with Russia has its constraints, Turkey may now be considering whether closer cooperation with the US would better serve its interests.