True NATO allies? How the US-Turkish partnership is coming apart at the seams
US President Donald Trump has recently boasted that the US and Turkey are “the closest we’ve ever been” and praised Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a friend. However, the NATO partners seem to be far from agreement on several key issues and the flaws in their relations are only growing.
Fethullah Gulen extradition
The first sore point in relations between the NATO allies, which then led to other rows, is the issue of US-based exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen. A former ally of Turkish President Erdogan, Gulen has founded his own faith-based social movement, also known as Hizmet, which has been designated a “terrorist organization” by Turkey.
Ankara claims that the movement, and Gulen in particular, plotted Turkey's 2016 failed coup and demands that Washington extradite him. More than one year has passed since the botched coup attempt, when more than 240 people were killed and over were 2,000 injured. In that time, the coup also triggered a massive crackdown by the Turkish authorities on the military and the media.
The US was hesitant to greenlight Turkey’s extradition demands, as they have not been supported with any substantial evidence. The cleric, who lives in Pennsylvania, denies any involvement in the coup events and says that he was against any attempt to seize power.
Ankara has, in the meantime, been arresting people it claims to have links with Gulen's network. Thus, the US pastor Andrew Brunson was detained in Turkey on terrorism charges last October. The White House asked Ankara to return Brunson to the US in May, but in September Erdogan proposed a swap of the pastor for Gulen.
Bilateral suspension of visa services
The spat deepened last week, when an employee of the US General Consulate in Istanbul, Metin Topuz, a Turkish citizen, was arrested by local law enforcement over alleged links to the exiled cleric. Topuz remains in custody, and Turkey issued a detention warrant for a second US consulate worker on Monday, according to Hurriyet newspaper.
The US mission in Turkey condemned the arrest and entirely suspended non-immigrant visa services at US diplomatic facilities in Turkey, citing security reasons.
Ankara retaliated in less than 24 hours. On Sunday, the Turkish Embassy to the United States in its turn suspended all non-immigrant visa operations, using almost the same language in its statement, which cited concerns for the security of the Turkish mission.
Turkey's justice minister, Abdulhamit Gul, expressed the hope that the US would revise its visa suspension decision. Meanwhile, he continued to justify the arrest of Topuz as an internal Turkish matter, Reuters reported, citing the minister’s interview to A Haber television.
Arming the Kurds
Washington openly supports and supplies the Kurdish forces battling against Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) on the ground in Iraq and Syria. Battling terrorism remains one of Trump’s key goals in the region, despite American presence being decried by Damascus and its allies as an illegal intervention.
Ankara has firmly opposed the arming of the Kurds, with the Turkish leader calling it a “mistake.” Turkey claims that the Kurdish forces are connected with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an outlawed militant movement that waged a three-decade war against the Turkish government for the region’s independence.
The US is delivering arms and provides air support to the mainly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), including heavy machine guns, small arms and ammunition, to help them battle Islamic State near the terrorists’ de facto capital, Raqqa. The SDF includes the People's Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara perceives as terrorists, while the US considers them a key component of the ground force best suited for a siege of Raqqa.
While the US agrees with Turkey in designating the PKK as a terrorist group, it does not share the same view with Ankara over Kurdish forces in Syria or Iraq.
The spat over the Syrian Kurds resulted in a diplomatic row, when the Turkish foreign minister called for the removal of the US presidential envoy for the US-led coalition against IS, Brett McGurk, accusing him of “supporting the PKK and YPG.”
Erdogan guards attack US protesters
The diplomatic spat was preceded by another spat in US-Turkish relations. In May, Turkish security officials accompanying Erdogan during his visit to Washington DC, were involved in a violent clash with a small group of pro-Kurdish protesters.
US authorities eventually indicted 19 people, including 15 Turkish security officials, for the attack and Erdogan subsequently slammed the decision.
Although the Turkish leader later claimed that Trump was allegedly “sorry” about the indictment, the statement was refuted by the White House.
US scraps arm deal with Turkey, Ankara turns to Moscow
The incident with Erdogan’s bodyguards led to Washington’s decision to withdraw from an arms deal with Ankara in September. The agreement was meant to allow the purchase of $1.2 million worth of firearms and ammunition from the US for Turkish security officials.
The move was decried by Erdogan, who accused Washington of arming Kurdish “terrorists” instead of its strategic partners.
“And when we are not able to acquire those weapons from the United States, why are you giving those weapons to terrorists? It’s a question that we ask our friends in the United States. And when these questions are not answered, we’re feeling sorry, as the strategic partners to the US,” Erdogan said in an interview with PBS in September.
After Ankara’s arms deal with the US broke down, Moscow received a deposit from Turkey for the purchase of its S-400 missile systems, Russia’s most advanced. The contract has been discussed since last year, but came into final stages only in September with both sides having confirmed the first payments.
Turkey wants to receive the first supplies before 2019, but the exact timing is still being discussed, according to Vladimir Kozhin, a Russian presidential aide for military-technical cooperation.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s NATO allies, including Washington, have criticized Ankara for choosing a Russian air defense system instead of one produced by NATO members, such as the US-made Patriot system. Patriot missile batteries used to be deployed on Turkish soil, but in 2015, the US, Germany and the Netherlands withdrew their systems, leaving only one Spanish Patriot battery in Turkish territory.
Erdogan rebuffed his critics, however, saying that Ankara had no intention of waiting for the protection of its NATO allies and adding that Turkey had to “take care of [itself] in every security point.”