It’s hard to believe it has only been a week since Turkish President Erdoğan was in Washington. Absent any breakthroughs or beatdowns, it barely seems worth a column by now. But then, as a non-event, it might be even better suited to framing the fundamental question facing U.S.-Turkish relations right now.
The longer the U.S. and Turkey manage to avoid a major crisis, the more convinced many observers become that it will never happen. And the more convinced others become that the tensions are simply building toward an even more dramatic break. As with the rival attitudes that many Istanbul residents hold toward the likelihood of a long-predicted earthquake, these assumptions often seem as much a matter of temperament than analytical assessment. I tend to be pessimistic, if not alarmist, on both counts. But that said, last week’s visit offered a few data points for both sides.
If nothing else, key voices in the U.S. Senate revealed that no matter how angry they get at Erdoğan, they remain eternally eager about salvaging relations with Turkey. Lindsay Graham, for example, who perhaps thinks that publicly choreographing his hypocrisy better demonstrates his relevance, joked about the sorry state of press freedom in Turkey, personally argued with Erdoğan about Syria and then went ahead and blocked a Senate genocide resolution at his request.
Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch, meanwhile, announced that the Senate should hold off on sanctions for now as “real discussions” over a face-saving way out of the S-400 crisis continue. “I am absolutely convinced when President Erdoğan left, he probably has a very different view than he did when he landed here,” Risch announced, and then, even more optimistically, “We think that there’s going to be movement relatively soon on the S-400s.”
If Erdoğan’s thinking had changed, however, he did not give any public indication of it, and continued to reject any notion that Turkey would shudder, mothball, box-up, or send back the S-400 missiles in deference to the U.S. Senate. To the contrary, in a TRT interview, İbrahim Kalın laid out Ankara’s longstanding counter-proposal for solving the crisis: Ankara deploys the missiles and Washington doesn’t do anything. As Kalın noted, Congress already declined to enforce sanctions when the missiles arrived and could find a new reason to do so when they were eventually activated.
When, as seems likely, the Senate’s hopes for a suitable S-400 deal are eventually dashed, we will see whether their anger overrides their continued desire for accommodation. In the absence of any new points of conflict, relatively restrained sanctions may be the most likely outcome, leaving the bilateral relationship to limp along.
One source of optimism in Washington – or at the very least schadenfreude – has been watching over the past week as the Turkish media rediscovers that Russia is not necessarily on its side in Syria. Ankara is still doing its best to blame the situation on Washington, from Abdülkadir Selvi warning about joint US-Russian machinations to Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu complaining that “the U.S. and Russia” were not fulfilling their promises regarding the YPG. But with the U.S. on its way out and Russia assuming the role of arbitrator, this dual formulation will become harder to maintain. So long as Moscow remains more intent on accommodating Damascus than Ankara, sabotaging what’s left of the U.S.-Turkish alliance will, if nothing else, be costlier.
So does all of this put together make some kind of lasting U.S.-Turkish détente possible, or will new issues and new grievances inevitably pile up? As Washington’s involvement in and concern over Syria fade, this will certainly remove one major source of tension, and perhaps make it easier for Ankara to stomach future U.S. moves like CAATSA sanctions or the new Halkbank case that would otherwise provoke a reaction. If frustrations with Russia over Syria help curb Ankara’s interest in future Russian weapons purchases, this could also prevent matters from escalating.
In the end, the most optimistic scenario for U.S.-Turkish relations may be that they simply stop mattering so much. Both countries have clearly lowered their expectations from the other as an ally dramatically. Now it might be enough for them to stay out of each other’s way. Given the alternatives, let’s hope all of Erdoğan’s future visits are as forgettable as the latest one.