(Photo: Global Times)
Relations between the US and Turkey have been complex since the beginning of the civil war in Syria. Washington - under former president Barack Obama - was concerned about the support Ankara provided to Syrian opposition forces. This support facilitated the rise of the Islamic State amid chaos in the country. Turkey did not tolerate the collaboration between the US and Kurds against the Islamic State in Syria. So, it unilaterally intervened twice to prevent the expansion of the Kurdish military units. Ankara regards Kurds as terrorists. At some stage, American and Turkish militaries were on a collision course in northern Syria, although no confrontation finally took place.
Following the failed coup d'état of July 2016, Turkish-American relations entered a new period of crisis. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan felt the US did not offer the solidarity he deserved. Erdogan's main complaint is that the US has not paid heed to extraditing Fethullah Gulen, the cleric he believes is behind the coup. The US does not agree with aggressive Turkish policies implemented after July 2016, resulting in the detention of foreign citizens such as Pastor Andrew Brunson.
After succeeding Obama, Donald Trump tried to approach Erdogan and launch a better working model between the two countries. This became apparent when the Turkish President visited him in the White House in May 2017. At that time, Trump even praised Erdogan as an ally in the battle against Islamic extremism. The two leaders gave the impression of a good personal chemistry. About a year later they also agreed on a road map to avert a crisis in Syria's Manbij. This road map was the basis for the withdrawal of Kurdish fighters from this city. Following Erdogan's recent electoral victory cementing his rule for the coming years, Trump congratulated him and pledged for closer cooperation.
However, the ongoing economic crisis in Turkey has brought the Turkish-American relationship to perhaps the worst moment in its recent history. In his attempt to put pressure on Erdogan for the release of Brunson, Trump is imposing strict sanctions on Turkey. These include 50 percent tariffs on Turkish steel and 20 percent on aluminum. Further, the US president has blocked the transfer of F-35 fighter jets to Turkey.
Ankara is placing the blame for its economic crisis on the US move in order to pass the buck to an external factor due to political reasons. One of its first tangible responses has been the decision to boycott American electronic products. In this context, it seems difficult for Erdogan to choose the option of an IMF loan to overcome his country's economic troubles. This will further weaken Turkey against the US because the latter is the Fund's biggest contributor.
The question is whether tensions in Turkish-American relations might lead Ankara to dramatically reorient its foreign policy. Turkey is a NATO member and its determination to buy an S-400 missile system from Russia has already caused frustration in the West. Erdogan has also warned the US in his recent New York Times article that Turkey might look for new partners and allies as long as the US is damaging its interest.
The recent visit of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to Ankara is bringing up again the issue of a potential Russian-Turkish alliance. It is hard to make predictions. But for Erdogan to decide to take a U-turn in Turkish foreign policy is rather premature. The strategic character of the Russian-Turkish partnership cannot be taken for granted.
From November 2015 until July 2016, for instance, Presidents Erdogan and Vladimir Putin had completely cut ties and restored them only after the first apologized to the second for the downing of a Russian warplane on the Turkey-Syria border. Generally, Turkey needs Russia more than vice-versa and that is because Erdogan had no alternative but apologize to his Russian counterpart two years ago. Moreover, it is unclear whether Moscow is currently prepared to financially assist Ankara.
Erdogan's priority is to handle the economic crisis and definitely not abandon the US in favor of Russia. Although he publicly puts the blame for the problem on Washington, he is well aware that the current crisis is the result of an overheated economy his government had allowed for years. If extraordinary measures - Ankara is now forced to take - work, Turkish-American relations will possibly return to relative normalcy despite the existing disagreements.