Turkey faces new tensions with Germany and US

September 10, 2017
Walking away. German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) standing next to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as he arrives to attend the G20 summit in Hamburg, on July 7. (AFP)

Washington - Following a build-up of tensions over sev¬eral months, Turkey is faced with rapidly dete¬riorating ties to two key allies — Germany and the United States — a double blow that could deepen Ankara’s isolation.
German Chancellor Angela Mer¬kel, campaigning to win a fourth term at the helm of Europe’s most powerful economy in an election this month, said she would ask the European Union to end member¬ship talks with Turkey. Merkel’s challenger, Martin Schulz, prom¬ised to do the same if elected.
The twin announcements, com¬ing after months of bickering be¬tween Berlin and Ankara and amid concern in Germany about German citizens held in Turkish prisons, were a bombshell. Even though Merkel’s plan has little chance of becoming reality as few EU coun¬tries are keen to cut ties with Tur¬key, the powerful political sym¬bolism of the move by Turkey’s biggest trading partner points to a long period of crisis in relations. Even before Merkel’s new state¬ment, the Berlin government said it would review its overall policy towards Turkey.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Merkel of “fas¬cism” and told the chancellor to “mind your own business.”
Even as Erdogan slammed Ger¬many, Turkey’s relations with the United States took a turn for the worse. Federal prosecutors in New York charged a former economy minister in Erdogan’s cabinet with violating US sanctions against Iran.
The case against Zafer Caglayan expands an investigation into ac¬tions by an Iranian-born Turkish gold trader, Reza Zarrab, who is accused of helping Tehran to cir¬cumvent sanctions and who is awaiting trial in New York. Zarrab and Caglayan are key figures in a corruption scandal that shook the Erdogan government in 2013. Erdogan called the investigation politically motivated. “The case against Zafer Caglayan shows how low the US has sunk,” Erdogan said on September 8.
The charges against Caglayan came several days after a US grand jury indicted 19 people, including 15 Turkish security officials, alleg¬edly involved in a brawl between Erdogan’s bodyguards and dem¬onstrators during a visit by the Turkish president to Washington in May.
The indictment means that Er¬dogan must leave some of his most trusted bodyguards behind when he travels to the UN General As¬sembly in New York this month. He called the indictments a “complete scandal” but a US Senate commit¬tee has approved a measure that would ban the sale of US weapons to Erdogan’s bodyguards.
In another sign of a deepening crisis between Washington and Turkey, the Senate Foreign Rela¬tions Committee in Washington heard testimony calling for a fun¬damental review of ties.
The two countries have clashed over conflicting priorities in Syria, where Washington is supporting Kurdish rebels seen as terrorists by Ankara. In return, Turkey angered the United States with talks aimed at buying a Russian anti-missile defence system. Relations also suf¬fered because of what critics say is a demolition of the rule of law in Turkey following last year’s coup attempt.
Steven Cook, a Middle East ex¬pert at the Council on Foreign Re¬lations, told senators the United States should conduct a full review of the “value” of its relationship with Turkey and restrict Turkey’s access to high-tech US weapons.
The downward spiral in Tur¬key’s ties with two of its key allies in the West and in NATO is picking up speed at a time when Ankara is increasingly isolated in the Middle East and analysts said chances for any improvement soon are slim.
“Since the failed July 2016 coup attempt, Erdogan has blamed the United States and other states, to include now Germany, of harbour¬ing coup plotters,” Andrea Taylor, a Middle East analyst at the Atlantic Council in Washington, said in e-mailed comments. “This narrative strengthens Erdogan’s domestic support.”
Domestic politics also shapes Er¬dogan’s approach to Turkey’s EU accession talks, analysts said. “Er¬dogan wants the EU to blink first and officially suspend the talks or end the membership process,” Amanda Paul, a Turkey expert at the Brussels-based think tank Eu¬ropean Policy Centre, said via e-mail. “This would be useful for him domestically.”
Turkey’s problems with the Unit¬ed States have a similar potential to create long-term trouble. “Turkey cannot be considered the totally reliable ally that it once was,” Paul said.
She cautioned that Ankara re¬mained a crucial partner for Wash¬ington despite current difficulties. “I believe [the United States] will adopt a strategic patience approach rather than take any drastic step,” such as pulling US soldiers out of bases in Turkey.
Keeping communication chan¬nels open with Turkey will be a key challenge for both Europe and the United States. Amanda Sloat of the Harvard Kennedy School told the Senate that Turkey remained of strategic importance for Europe and America.
“If the EU and US abandon Tur¬key, Ankara will seek partners else¬where — as demonstrated by its recent interactions with Russia and Iran,” she said in her testimony. “The only people who benefit from the US curbing ties significantly are those who don’t want Turkey fac¬ing west.”