Will impeachment curtail Trump’s ability to shield Turkey from Congress?

Turkish-American ties will likely remain strained in 2020, as Trump will be preoccupied with his reelection bid and have less time for Turkey.

al-monitor U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally, Battle Creek, Michigan, U.S., Dec. 18, 2019. Photo by REUTERS/Leah Millis.

Dec 20, 2019

Eyes in Turkey are on President Donald Trump’s impeachment, and questions are being raised about how impeachment will affect strained US-Turkish ties.

The concern is that Trump’s ability to shield Turkey from an increasingly hostile Congress will be diminished as a result of the impeachment process. Many worry that impeachment will adversely affect Turkey’s economic and security interests.

The core issues that have beset these ties in recent months continue to be intractable, including Ankara’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 air defense system and its desire to buy more.

Turkey’s offensive in northeast Syria, launched in October against the US-supported Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), is another issue clouding ties.

Ankara says the US refusal to sell it advanced air defense systems compelled it to turn to Russia. It also views the YPG as a terrorist organization, and can’t understand why an ally would back a Kurdish group that threatens Turkey.

Washington, in turn, says that purchasing the S-400 is not in line with Ankara’s commitments as an ally because these systems pose a threat to US and NATO military assets, most notably Lockheed Martin’s advanced F-35 fighter jets.

Washington continues to back the YPG in Syria as a key ally against the Islamic State (IS) and has not indicated that it will drop its support.

To the contrary, the anger caused by Trump’s green light to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in October, enabling the Turkish incursion into northeastern Syria, has increased congressional support for the YPG.

In the meantime, Trump endorsed the withholding of the transfer of F-35 fighter jets to Turkey — even though Ankara is a partner in this program — because of its purchase of the S-400.

This became official earlier this week, after the Senate passed the bipartisan National Defense Authorization Act, which Trump is due to sign without delay.

The act not only prohibits the transfer of the F-35s to Turkey, but also calls on the administration to sanction Ankara under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act for buying the Russian S-400 system.

Trump has so far resisted these calls. He even expressed sympathy for Ankara’s position on the S-400, blaming the Obama administration for refusing to sell Patriot missiles to Turkey.

The National Defense Authorization Act foresees a conditional lifting of the arms embargo on the Greek Cypriot administration. It also calls for measures against the TurkStream natural gas pipeline running from Russia to Turkey.

In a statement issued after the adoption of the defense bill, the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs underscored what it said was Congress’ hostility toward Turkey. “This bill demonstrates that the Congress persists in disrespecting Turkey’s sovereign decisions,” the ministry said.

“We remind once more that the language of threats and sanctions will never dissuade Turkey from resolutely taking steps to ensure its national security,” it added. “No one should doubt that necessary measures will be taken against these initiatives targeting Turkey.”

The ugly mood against Turkey in Congress also surfaced with the recent adoption of Armenian genocide resolutions by the House and the Senate. Both nonbinding resolutions say the Ottoman Turks perpetrated a genocide in its killing of Armenians during Word War I. Turkey vehemently rejects this accusation.

Turkish analysts point out that with a Republican majority in the Senate, Trump is unlikely to be removed from office, but they add that this will not necessarily work to Turkey’s advantage.

Sinan Ulgen, the chairman of the Istanbul-based independent Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM) and a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, believes that impeachment will make Trump more beholden to Republicans in the Senate.

“It will become more difficult for Trump to overlook the demands of the Senate group that insists on sanctions being imposed on Turkey,” Ulgen said in remarks to daily Cumhuriyet.

Burhanettin Duran, who heads the government-financed SETA think tank in Ankara, has a bleak outlook for the future of Turkish-US ties.

“[Washington’s] Turkey policy is determined more and more by the Senate’s interventions in Trump’s foreign policy. … Because some previously pro-Turkey [congressional] groups have crossed over to the other side, a bipartisan anti-Turkish atmosphere has developed among both Republicans and Democrats,” Duran told the official Anadolu Agency.

“Like a car darting headlong downhill because its brakes are gone, we are heading toward a crash that will harm bilateral ties,” Duran said.

Using its strategic value for the United States, Turkey was able to ward off Armenian genocide resolutions and other anti-Turkish moves by Congress for decades with support from the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department and friendly Republican members of Congress.

That is clearly no longer the case.

Ankara also used to lean on influential Jewish groups in the United States, like B’nai B'rith, to help kill such resolutions. Erdogan’s scathing attacks against Israel and unwavering support for Hamas have lost Turkey that support, too.

Ankara is left today only able to seek support from the White House, due to the special relationship Erdogan has built with Trump. Current developments indicate that that support is also becoming increasingly tenuous.

In a jointly penned article, retired Turkish ambassadors Ali Tuygan and Yusuf Buluc underscored the risk of relying solely on Trump’s support. “Leaving the US-Turkey relationship only in the hands of Mr. Trump, disregarding other centers of power, excluding the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs from the policy and decision-making process and disregarding its professional/institutional advice has only led us to the dead end where we now find ourselves,” Tuygan and Buluc wrote.

Despite pressure from Washington, Ankara is also refusing to compromise on issues that have caused tensions between the two countries, and is threatening to retaliate instead.

In a Dec. 15 television interview, Erdogan warned that Turkey could shut down the strategic Incirlik air base in southern Turkey, which the United States has used for decades and where it reportedly stores tactical nuclear weapons.

Erdogan also threatened to shut down the advanced radar base in Kurecik, in eastern Turkey, which is officially a NATO asset.

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper has said he would seek clarification from his Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar about Erdogan’s remarks.

Political analyst Murat Yetkin recalled how Washington demonstrated its capacity to harm Turkey’s economy in 2018, when Trump authorized sanctions against Ankara for refusing to release the American pastor Andrew Brunson, who was imprisoned for alleged terrorist activities.

In January 2019, Trump also threatened over Twitter to “devastate Turkey’s economy” if it attacked the Kurds in Syria.

Both developments put the Turkish lira in a downward spiral against the dollar.

Many point to this threat as an indication of how risky it is for Ankara to rely solely on Trump in its dealings with Washington.

“With the harm done by Trump in 2018 to Turkey’s economy … still fresh in minds, the thought of sanctions against Turkey’s financial system is causing sleepless nights in Istanbul, the country’s economic hub, and Ankara, the country’s political hub,” Yetkin wrote in his personal blog

Erdogan’s threat to expel the United States from the Incirlik and Kurecik bases had an immediate effect, further weakening the Turkish lira against the dollar after a period of relative stability.

According to a Western diplomat, speaking to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, Washington will hold out to the end to maintain its military presence in Turkey.

“However, American policymakers are not naive and are bound to have made contingency plans in case Ankara does pull the plug on Incirlik,” the diplomat said.

He pointed to the fact that Washington has been expanding its military facilities in Qatar and trying to increase its presence in regional countries such as Romania, Bulgaria and Greece.

“Closing the Kurecik base will pit Turkey against NATO because this is a NATO base. It is doubtful that Ankara will let matters come to that,” the diplomat said.

However one looks at it. Turkish-American ties are set to remain strained in 2020, when Trump will be preoccupied with his reelection bid and have less time for Turkey.

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