Recently Turkey-U.S. relations have again found its way into the mainstream Turkish media news amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. The process started with the sending of medical aid by Turkey to the U.S. and was capped with a letter on April 29 from President Erdoğan to President Trump.
In the letter, President Erdoğan, praising his American counterpart’s actions in fighting the coronavirus, wrote “I appreciate your determined struggle to contain the pandemic in the U.S. and I am very pleased to see that you have taken initial steps towards normalization with a downward trend in the number of cases thanks to the measures you have taken.” This, to the President of a country with one third – and growing - of all global infections and with a quarter – and increasing - of all deaths in the world due to the virus and to a President under heavy criticism at home and abroad for his dismal, erratic (non)performance in fighting the pandemic.
President Erdoğan then goes on to declare that “We need to take advantage of the favorable environment created by our cooperation, which has become stronger and diversified due to the pandemic, in order to advance bilateral relations between Turkey and America in every field…” This is the core, operative section of his message. But it is not at all clear in what ways the pandemic has made cooperation between the two countries “stronger and diversified”!
What is clear however is that the flurry of sending COVID-19 assistance to more than 50 countries (the US, UK, Spain and, Italy included) has for the government at least a dual purpose. One it is a pitch to prompt the waning domestic political support at home for the AKP-led government. The dire economic situation has been made worse by the pandemic and AKP fears it is losing ground. Hence, the idea behind sending aid to the distant parts of the globe is to make Turkey look strong, a world leader in the fight against the coronavirus. Whether this would happen or not, while important, is not the question to be addressed in this article.
Here we want to ascertain where Turkish-American relations are heading in the light of recent developments. It is clear that the bilateral and regional issues dividing the two nations are on the back burner for the time being. But we know that they remain unresolved and unattended. To name just a few, we have the U.S. backing of PKK and FETÖ terrorist organizations, S-400/F-35 syndrome and, the pending threat of sanctions and pro-Armenian genocide resolutions in the Congress. Under these circumstances, sending medical aid to one of the best economically and scientifically endowed countries in the world can have only a minuscule transient impact, but certainly none on the broader setting of bilateral relations. It would, to put it mildly, be simplistic to sow on two planeloads of aid unwarranted and exaggerated expectations regarding the course of bilateral ties as set forth in the letter.
In the meantime, there are several recent developments of note which shed light on the true state of Turkish-American relations. One is the U.S. persistence regarding the S-400 issue. The U.S. administration keeps reminding Turkey that the threat of sanctions – which are on standby in the U.S. Congress - remains on the table until the question is resolved to their satisfaction. And Ankara demurs that there will be no change in the Turkish stance. Thus, the S-400 deadlock continues.
A related narrative is on the closure of İncirlik airbase and the Kürecik radar installation. Is it not strange that at a time of “strengthening and diversification” of ties, there should be such talk at all? Why would Ambassador Satterfield in Ankara feel the need to say that all is fine and normal at İncirlik? It just doesn’t fit, even contradicts the spirit projected in President Erdoğan’s letter.
Ambassador Satterfield has also made clear that a swap line with the Federal Reserve is based not on political, but on financial considerations. This is to say that political sweeteners accompanying any medical aid will be irrelevant when deciding requests between the two central banks. This message is bad news for Ankara because the Turkish treasury is in deep trouble.
Finally, a most recent piece of news, if corroborated, reveals the dramatic inconsistency that inflicts the texture of the Turkish-American relationship. At precisely the time when Turkey sends medical supplies to the U.S., the American side reportedly delivers medical aid to the PYD/YPG which Turkey views as a terrorist organization in Syria. The US Representative for Syria Ambassador James Jeffrey added insult to injury, calling for Turkey to withdraw its troops from Syria without specifying why and in return for what. So where is the “U.S.-Turkey alliance” referred to in President Erdoğan’s letter?
In conclusion, two plane-loads of medical supplies and a sweetener letter cannot and should not be expected to cure the problem-ridden state of Turkish-American relations. It certainly will not be enough to open the doors of the U.S. Federal Reserve to the Central Bank of Turkey.
Let’s also remember that our cultural values teach us to give and share, but not to expect favors in return.
That said, we should also understand that the Turkish-American relationship is important and beneficial to both sides if properly structured and handled. What is needed is a sober and rational assessment of a mutually agreed exit strategy from the current impasse. In this respect the resolution of the S-400 issue, for better or worse, is the password for any progress. It is time therefore for a reset and change of password.
Faruk Loğoğlu is a retired diplomat and a former deputy of the Republican People’s Party (CHP).