Why Pompeo may not be good news for Ankara

The diplomatic reshuffle in Washington may be the harbinger of a new era of further confrontation with Ankara.
March 18, 2018
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C) receives US Defence Secretary James Mattis (C-L) within a inter-delegation meeting at the Presidential Complex in Ankara, last August. (AFP)
Shifting probabilities. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C) receives US Defence Secretary James Mattis (C-L) within a inter-delegation meeting at the Presidential Complex in Ankara, last August. (AFP)

Regardless of the rosy expectations of some, US-Turkey relations may enter a critical phase if CIA Director Mike Pompeo takes over the US State Department from Rex Tillerson.

Pompeo and Tillerson have very little in common. Tillerson represented a “softer” American approach to issues and the notion that Washington needs to take its allies into account. Pompeo stands for a much tougher line, based on his loyalty to US President Donald Trump.

US foreign policy is about to take a sharp turn, onto a more assertive path.

US discord over policies towards Turkey was very apparent during Tillerson’s tenure. The White House, Pentagon and State Department all had different views. The flaws in US diplomatic and military choreography vis-a-vis Syria helped Russia and Iran expand their influence in the region.

Meanwhile, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units militia, which had been key in operations against the Islamic State (ISIS) and jihadist forces, has been alienated. Turkish advances onto Syrian soil and its targeting of the Kurdish-dominated enclave of Afrin have taken bilateral tensions to a breaking point.

How Pompeo manages the crisis will make or break US-Turkey relations. It’s possible there will be a new phase of political arm-wrestling with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Shortly before he was ousted, Tillerson had a three-and-a-half-hour tete-a-tete with Erdogan. They spoke without an official interpreter and it was obvious the meeting was meant to repair the relationship.

Tillerson leaves a legacy of three working groups of mid-level experts on Iraq, Syria and the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, the cleric seen by the Ankara establishment as an arch-enemy of the Turkish state. The groups are expected to stay in place but much cannot be expected of them, at least until Pompeo is confirmed by the US Senate, which may take weeks.

So, what lies ahead? First, Pompeo’s State Department would likely take a more hard-line approach, in sync with Trump’s White House and the Pentagon. ISIS and Iran will probably be at the top of Pompeo’s agenda.

As has been noted by other observers, Pompeo’s mindset is coloured by his devotion to the Evangelical church. His sharply anti-Islam views may lead him to choose closer cooperation with regional powers, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, known for their anti-Muslim Brotherhood stance. If so, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party would be seen by Pompeo as broadly in line with the Brotherhood perspective and consequently viewed more critically.

The biggest part of the puzzle, however, will be Pompeo’s approach to Turkey’s increasingly fragile relationship with NATO and Russia’s growing influence on policy-making in Ankara. Washington’s mixed signals emboldened Erdogan and the Turkish military to pursue an anti-Kurdish agenda, which poses challenges to NATO’s stated approach.

Erdogan was able to detect the discord in Washington. This is the context of his remarks belittling Tillerson the day after he was sacked. Erdogan said the secretary of state had been “speechless” during their meeting in Ankara and he asked for “respect” from his successor.

It was an indication that Erdogan will continue the political arm-wrestling for which he is increasingly known. If Pompeo acts tough, Erdogan will play his trump card, which is mostly Russian President Vladimir Putin and his supportive policies. Russia will be an important factor as Turkey’s president gambles by turning the Afrin incursion into a “sustainable conflict.”

Pompeo may weaken American support for and cooperation with the Kurdish militia but that’s as far as he’s likely to go. Even though Iran will be Pompeo’s red line, there is a massive anti-Erdogan sentiment in the US Congress. This is a view Pompeo probably shares and, if he doesn’t, certainly cannot ignore.

The diplomatic reshuffle in Washington may be the harbinger of a new era of further confrontation with Ankara.

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