This article was published in Arab News on November 21, 2018.
Unnecessary disputes sour Turkey-US relations
Two major NATO allies, Turkey and the US, are embroiled in several disputes that will not bring any advantage to either side.
One of them is the cooperation between the US and the People’s Protections Units (YPG), which Turkey sees as the Syrian branch of the PKK terrorist organization that it has been fighting for decades. Washington prefers to cooperate with the YPG, because it is a traditional supporter of the Kurdish cause. The Kurds may also be used as leverage to force the Syrian regime to negotiate a deal favorable to US interests. Furthermore, a strong Kurdish presence in Syria or an independent Kurdistan in the north of Syria is an asset for the security of Israel.
Using the anti-Daesh fight as a pretext, Washington supplied an enormous quantity of weapons and ammunition to the YPG. Kurds are important for the US not only to fight Daesh but also to fight the Syrian regime if and when the time comes. The YPG also helped the US to capture almost all the oil rich areas of Syria. Col. Ryan Dillon, spokesman for the US-led task force to fight Daesh, said in June that the US would defend the YPG if Turkey attacked it in Afrin, hinting that the two NATO allies may be clashing over the YPG.
Another disagreement is Turkey’s $2.5 billion deal to purchase S-400 surface-to-air missiles from Russia. When Turkey decided to improve its air defense in view of the growing instability in the Middle East, it turned to its NATO allies, but they attached conditions to the use of the missiles and would not agree to the transfer of technology to Turkey. Therefore, Turkey decided to buy Russian-manufactured S-400 system. This purchase unleashed an avalanche of criticism against Turkey in almost all NATO countries and raised the question of whether Turkey is distancing itself from the Atlantic community. Heidi Grant, the US deputy under-secretary of the Air Force, said that if Turkey bought S-400 missiles its access to NATO technologies would be limited. This will make Turkey the first NATO country to be subjected to such a measure.
Another thorny issue is the demand by Turkey that the US extradite the Turkish cleric Fetullah Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania. Turkey is confident that Gulen is behind two serious attempts aimed at shaking the Justice and Development Party government. One is the corruption scandal that broke out on Dec. 17 and 25, 2013. The second is the military coup attempt out in Turkey in July 2016. Ankara sent 84 voluminous files to Washington to justify the extradition. So far there is no sign that the US is persuaded to link Gulen to the coup. Turkey regards this attitude as a lack of willingness rather than insufficiency of evidence.
From the extradition of Fethullah Gulen to the stand-off over the YPG, these conflicts help neither Ankara nor Washington.
Two weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal claimed that Mike Flynn, a retired general and former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, was involved in a plot to kidnap Gulen and deliver him to the Turkish authorities in return for $15 million, but this was immediately denied by the Turkish authorities.
Another conflict is related to Reza Zarrab, a gold trader of Azeri origin with triple Turkish, Iranian and Azerbaijani citizenship. He is accused in US federal court of trading Turkish gold to Iran in exchange for oil and natural gas, in violation of US sanctions. The US authorities allege that Zarrab bribed high-level Turkish government officials to secure their cooperation. Zarrab’s case is more complicated than the others. More time was allocated to Zarrab’s case in official talks during recent visits to the US by senior Turkish political figures. His trial will start on Nov. 27.
Zarrab did not appear at a pre-trial conference last Thursday, nor on previous occasions. His absence led to speculation that he may be negotiating with the US authorities to plead guilty in exchange for a reduced sentence. If Zarrab cooperates with US officials and supplies details of his deals with Turkish Cabinet ministers, he may cause considerable embarrassment in Turkey’s domestic politics and further damage Turkey-US relations.
Another conflict is the refusal by both American and Turkish consular services to issue visas, which began with the arrest of a local employee of the US Consulate in Istanbul. Fortunately, a smooth thaw is under way regarding this harsh measure, which was punishing innocent citizens who have nothing to do with the state of affairs between the two countries.
A further deterioration in relations with the US was the last thing Ankara needed when it is so isolated in the international arena.