Turkey adrift in uncharted waters
It was a swift exchange between two NATO allies at the highest level. The Turkish president claimed the US president had apologised for the incident last May when his bodyguards severely beat peaceful Kurdish demonstrators outside the Turkish Embassy in Washington.
“Actually, (US) President (Donald) Trump called me about a week ago about this issue,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told PBS’s Judy Woodruff. “He said that he was sorry and he told me that he was going to follow up on this issue when we come to the United States within the framework of an official visit. The protesters were insulting us and they were screaming and shouting. The police failed to intervene properly.”
In a matter of hours, came a blunt denial. “The topic was discussed. There was no apology,” White House Deputy Press Secretary Lindsay Walters told CNN.
The bizarre yo-yo of claim-counterclaim between Erdogan and the Americans has become somewhat routine. Some say the Turkish attitude shows the manipulativeness of its leader and his propensity for fake statements. True or not, such episodes mark a new low for the Turkish-American relationship.
On the surface, everything looks fine. Trump praised Erdogan on September 21, saying it was “a great honour” to host the Turkish president. He “is becoming a friend of mine (and) he is running a very difficult part of the world,” Trump said. “Frankly he’s getting very high marks.” Trump concluded that the two countries were “right now as close as we’ve ever been.”
Are these sentiments entirely false? It’s hard to ignore the extent to which Erdogan has become a figure of hate in the United States. “You are not welcome” was the headline of a three-page ad, purchased by a human rights group, in the Metro New York newspaper the day after Erdogan arrived in the city for the UN General Assembly. The day before he left, protesters were bruised in a brawl involving Erdogan’s security detail that started when the Turkish president was speaking at New York hotel.
It is hard to find a US congressman who will express public support for Erdogan and the state of the relationship could be symbolised by his meeting with Trump. Erdogan was the last leader to meet with the US president, for a mere 30 minutes before Trump left to play golf.
Analysts draw definitive conclusions. “There is no question that Washington and Ankara have been experiencing perhaps the most difficult period in their bilateral relationship since the 1974 Cyprus crisis,” noted Henri Barkey, a professor of international relations at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.
He said the situation has arisen out of recent developments in “the Syria cauldron” and the Erdogan regime’s determination “to play a new and anti-systemic international role.” Turkey’s dependence on the West for its economic and political well-being may not survive long, he added.
The core issue is Erdogan’s ability to reclaim trust. As time goes on, there is a widening gap between his political domination at home and enforced solitude abroad. His moves to gain international influence are backfiring, mainly because of his heavy-handed style. Erdogan regards disagreement as a threat that must be countered with disproportionate force.
A source in Washington claimed Erdogan proposed a prisoner swap to Trump. The American priest Andrew Brunson, who is held in a Turkish prison for alleged ties to Gulenists, would be exchanged for Reza Zarrab, the Iranian gold trader charged by the United States for conspiring to violate the Iranian embargo along with high-level Turkish officials, including the former Turkish economy minister. The source said Trump deemed such a swap unthinkable among NATO partners.
Only a couple of weeks before Erdogan’s visit to New York, a federal court in the city issued an arrest order for the former Turkish minister Zafer Caglayan. It is not hard to imagine Erdogan’s perception of such developments.
The turmoil in world politics shows the importance of leadership style and the defining force of leaders’ impulses. From Ankara, there are repeated instances of erratic behaviour. The more frustrated the Turkish president becomes, the louder he speaks and Turkey’s position is ever more imperilled.