This article was published in Arab News on August 12, 2019.
Turkey may find other allies, but shunning US should be last resort
A high-level delegation headed by the Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal returned home after a one-hour meeting in Washington with the US Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said: “We held additional talks with Turkish officials. The conversations continue.” Never in Turkish-American relations has a meeting been summarized by such a terse statement.
The impression given by pro-government media outlets in Turkey before the delegation’s departure was that a preliminary agreement had already been reached and, after some finishing touches, it was going to be finalized and submitted for presidential approval on both sides.
The centerpiece of the bargaining was the release of Andrew Brunson, an American evangelist pastor who has lived in Turkey for 23 years and was detained in October 2016 on charges of attempting to overthrow the Turkish government. He was moved to house arrest on July 24. On Aug. 8, Nauert said: “The kind of progress that we want is for Pastor Brunson, our locally employed staff and other American citizens to be brought home.”
The worsening of relations did not stop there. US President Donald Trump announced an additional economic measure to be imposed on imports from Turkey, tweeting: “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! Our relations with Turkey are not good at this time!” Following this tweet, the lira’s value dwindled from 5.35 to 6.40 against the US dollar.
Instead of explaining Turkey’s attitude in an official meeting behind closed doors, Erdogan used a method similar to Trump’s tweets. By doing so, he reciprocates — or retaliates — both in form and in content, with equally defiant rhetoric
A statement attributed to Sullivan by the Financial Times said Ankara had until Wednesday this week to release Brunson. Turkey did not bow to this attitude. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday published an article in the New York Times that said: “Before it is too late, Washington must give up the misguided notion that our relationship can be asymmetrical and come to terms with the fact that Turkey has alternatives. Failure to reverse this trend of unilateralism and disrespect will require us to start looking for new friends and allies.”
Instead of explaining Turkey’s attitude in an official meeting behind closed doors, Erdogan used a method similar to Trump’s tweets. By doing so, he reciprocates — or retaliates — both in form and in content, with equally defiant rhetoric.
In other paragraphs of the article, Erdogan reminds that Turkey has done in the past what it thought to be right, despite US opposition. One such incident was Turkey’s sending of troops to Cyprus in 1974 in an attempt to reverse the island’s annexation by Greece. The US had fiercely opposed it, but Turkey remained undeterred. Another example was in Syria. Despite US opposition, Turkey in January this year carried out a military operation in the northern Syrian district of Afrin to clear it of US-supported Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
There is a nationalist and militarist group in Turkey that is citing Cyprus’ example and blaming Erdogan for not doing what then-Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit did in 1974. Nationalism and militarism are the easiest tools to move the masses. If Erdogan bets on it, he can rally strong support for himself.
Washington’s latest attitude and Erdogan’s article in the New York Times carry the Turkish-American altercation to a different platform. The more the respective positions become sharpened, the more difficult it will become to de-escalate. The interests of both sides will be harmed if it continues, but Turkey will be affected more than the US because of its economy’s fragility.
The most important message in Erdogan’s article was that Turkey has alternatives other than allying with the US. Of course, a country of the size of Turkey, located in one of the world’s most critical geo-strategical positions, with a population of 80 million and with the second biggest army in NATO after the US, will not remain in limbo. It may easily find allies elsewhere, but this should be considered only as the last resort.
Turkey was faced with a similar case in 1964. It was contemplating military action in Cyprus to stop the massacring of Turkish Cypriots by Greek Cypriots. Then-US President Lyndon Johnson sent a letter to then-Turkish Prime Minister Ismet Inonu telling him that Article 5 of the NATO Charter — the principle that an attack against one ally is considered as an attack against all allies — may not apply if the Soviet Union attacked Turkey as a reaction to Ankara’s military action in Cyprus. Inonu responded by saying: “If this is the US approach, the present world order will collapse; a new order will emerge, and Turkey will find its place in that new order.”
Such a scenario did not materialize 50 years ago. Will it materialize now?