In January 2017, the Trump administration inherited a U.S. relationship with Turkey already in dire straits. Since his ascent to power in 2002, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had transformed Turkey from a Western-oriented secular republic into an authoritarian regime with a democratic façade. Erdogan’s iron-fisted rule and pan-Islamist ambitions – including support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran – set Ankara and Washington on a collision course, sparking bilateral crises that culminated with the U.S. imposing sanctions on a fellow member of NATO to secure the release of an American hostage.
President Trump initially tried to mend the U.S.-Turkish relationship by warming up to Erdogan and delaying confrontations over major sticking points. In September 2017, Trump called Erdogan “a friend,” and fist-bumped the Turkish president in July 2018 for “doing things the right way.”1
Trump’s personal outreach to Erdogan, however, failed to deter new provocations. Instead, the Turkish president took this praise from Trump as carte blanche to escalate harassment of U.S. citizens and consular employees, who continue to face prosecution on farcical or dubious charges. These moves are part of Erdogan’s campaign of “hostage diplomacy,” through which he has used U.S. and European detainees as bargaining chips to extract political concessions.2 Erdogan also lambasted the U.S. for putting on trial a Turkish banker who facilitated a government-sanctioned conspiracy at his country’s second-largest public lender, Halkbank, to evade U.S. sanctions on Iran by laundering billions of dollars for Tehran between 2012 and 2015.
Facing these issues, Trump resorted to a transactional approach, reportedly negotiating with Erdogan to free Pastor Andrew Brunson and other U.S. detainees in Turkey. When that, too, failed, Washington chose to abruptly impose sanctions, first designating Turkey’s ministers of the interior and justice under the Global Magnitsky Act and then doubling tariffs on Turkish aluminum and steel. Two months later, Turkey freed Pastor Brunson, whom Trump soon welcomed to the White House. But at least one other U.S. citizen and three consular workers remain in jail or under house arrest.3
Another contentious issue has been Erdogan’s intention to purchase Russia’s S-400 surface-to-air missile system, despite those batteries’ incompatibility with NATO equipment and the risk of compromising the F-35 jets’ stealth capabilities. In July, Congress legislated to block the sale of F-35s to Turkey until Ankara scrapped its S-400 deal. For its part, the Pentagon balked at the suggestion, and the administration instead decided to offer Turkey its Patriot defense system as an alternative to the Russian S-400.
In Syria, the Trump administration has sought to address Erdogan’s concerns about the U.S. military’s partnership with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian Kurdish militia, in the war against the Islamic State. The YPG remains anathema to Erdogan because of its ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, which both Washington and Ankara consider a terrorist group. After announcing the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria in December 2018, reportedly at Erdogan’s request, Trump declared that Ankara would assume responsibility to “eradicate whatever is left of ISIS.”4 Nonetheless, Trump and his senior advisors later said that it remained U.S. policy to protect America’s Syrian Kurdish partners from Ankara.
The Trump administration’s transactional and personality-driven approach to Erdogan has failed to address the strategic issues that are the ultimate cause of bilateral tension. Negotiating with Erdogan on an ad-hoc basis without addressing his broader realignment of Turkey away from NATO only rewards the Turkish strongman while emboldening him to commit further offenses.
Erdogan certainly prefers to steer his relationship with the U.S. at the interpersonal level, banking on his personal rapport with Trump to paper over any conflicts. Indeed, Erdogan poured millions of dollars into Washington’s lobbyists to curry the administration’s favor.5 The impact of such spending is difficult to assess, but Trump chose to overlook some extraordinary transgressions, likely endowing the Turkish president with a sense of impunity. In May 2017, Erdogan’s bodyguards and loyalists beat up American protestors in Washington – dialing up the intimidation tactics first employed against U.S.-based dissidents at the Brookings Institution in March 2016. Yet the administration again swept the incident under the rug: The Department of Justice briefly opened an investigation but dropped the charges within months.
But Erdogan is unlikely to end his hostage diplomacy if, as reports indicate, Trump made concessions in exchange for the pastor’s release.
The circumstances that encouraged Erdogan’s hostage diplomacy were similar. While detentions began in 2016, Washington only issued a warning after Turkey arrested a third consular employee in 2017. By then, Trump had already begun the reported negotiations with Erdogan for a prisoner swap, signaling his willingness to yield concessions for the release of innocent detainees. Sensing no limits, Erdogan kept pushing his hand until Washington retaliated with sanctions and tariffs in the summer of 2018. Turkey released Pastor Brunson last October, apparently as a result of U.S. pressure. But Erdogan is unlikely to end his hostage diplomacy if, as reports indicate, Trump made concessions in exchange for the pastor’s release.6
Washington has also failed to convince Erdogan that it will hold accountable all those who facilitate evasion of its sanctions on Iran. Ankara has consistently challenged the legitimacy of U.S. sanctions, which it violated on a massive scale before 2015, as the Halkbank case proved last year. Yet the Treasury Department has not yet issued any fines against the bank for those crimes, fueling Ankara’s efforts to dismiss its past transgressions. Nonetheless, in November, Trump not only afforded Turkey an exemption that allows its continued oil trade with Iran despite sanctions, but also reportedly began negotiating with Erdogan for a lenient fine on Halkbank – moves that encourage Erdogan’s further noncompliance.7
There is also little reason to believe that Erdogan is either able or willing to take over the counter-Islamic State campaign in Syria.
There is also little reason to believe that Erdogan is either able or willing to take over the counter-Islamic State campaign in Syria.8 Rather, Turkey remains focused on the threat it perceives from the YPG. In the absence of U.S. troops, Turkish-Kurdish hostilities could disrupt the stability of northeastern Syria, which U.S. efforts had secured. The YPG has already turned to Moscow and Damascus for protection, thus enabling them to reassert control of the key terrain and resources in northeast Syria, where U.S. forces now operate. Similarly, in a bid to destroy the YPG, Ankara is now also likely to negotiate and cooperate more with U.S. adversaries including Russia, Iran, and the Syrian regime.
The immediate challenge facing Washington is how to dispel Erdogan’s belief that he can get away with taking hostages, violating sanctions, and threatening the U.S. and its partners. Until then, Turkey’s drift away from NATO will continue apace, with little hope for its return to the norms of the transatlantic alliance.