January 31, 2019 |

Midterm Assessment: Turkey

Current Policy

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.

U.S. President Donald J. Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan deliver joint statements in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on May 16, 2017 in Washington, DC.(Photo by Michael Reynolds-Pool/ Getty Images)


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.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech during a ceremony at the Presidential Palace on July 9, 2018 in Ankara, Turkey. (Photo by Stringer/Getty Images)


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.

  1. Resist Erdogan’s hostage diplomacy. The U.S. and Europe should devise a concerted response based on the principle that ransoms are unacceptable. The Trump administration should also press just as hard for the release of the one remaining U.S. citizen and three consular employees as it did for the release of Pastor Brunson. Likewise, it should continually raise the issue of Ankara’s mistreatment of its own citizens and relentless assault on their civil liberties.
  2. Pursue legal action to ensure Turkey’s compliance with sanctions on Iran. First and foremost, Treasury must follow up on the Justice Department’s case against Halkbank with a fine proportionate to the underlying crimes. The prosecution of additional conspirators, as well as the designation of implicated Turkish officials under the Global Magnitsky Act, would also send a strong message.
  3. Encourage Turkey to pursue the Kurdish peace process at home and a modus vivendi with the Syrian Kurds. The U.S. should work with its European partners and use transatlantic leverage over the PKK and its affiliates to facilitate the Kurdish peace process within Turkey and prevent the escalation of fighting between Turkish and YPG forces in Syria. Such a comprehensive framework will not only avoid a vacuum that could to lead to a jihadist resurgence in Syria, but would also help thwart a potential rapprochement between Turkey and the Syrian regime while reducing Ankara’s tactical dependence on Russia.
  4. Prevent Erdogan from buying Russian S-400s. Ankara does not appear to realize that the purchase will violate U.S. law and trigger sanctions. While the U.S. hopes to overturn Turkey’s S-400 deal by offering Patriot missiles, Erdogan has announced his intention to purchase both defense systems. To induce a change in Turkish policy towards the S-400, Washington needs to convey more clearly the full range of consequences of the Turkish government’s procurement of sanctioned Russian hardware.
  5. Capitalize on Turkey’s current financial conundrum to encourage its return to the rules-based global order. As Turkey braces for the implementation of one of the biggest-ever IMF bailout packages, Ankara has little choice but to accept the strings attached to it. Turkey’s transatlantic allies must ensure that any bailout is preconditioned on good governance, requiring Ankara to undertake reforms to improve Turkey’s accountability, transparency, and rule of law.
  6. Encourage Turkey to improve relations with Israel and Greece, and resolve the Cyprus problem. The newfound natural gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean pose a historic opportunity to normalize Turkey’s ties to Israel and Cyprus. The most viable route for Israel’s gas exports to Europe is through Turkey, and the inclusion of a reunified Cyprus would optimize the trade. Now more than ever, Turkey’s interests converge with that of Israel, Cyprus, and Greece. Washington should remind its ally that such a realignment may well offer Turkey its best chance to overhaul its Customs Union agreement and resuscitate its EU membership process.

Mehmet Hakan Atilla from Halkbank in Turkey in 2015. (YouTube screen shot)