The summer peak of the crisis between Turkey and the United States, two NATO allies in theory, has been replaced by cautious pessimism. Few Turks today remember the days of massive Turkish protests against President Donald Trump and his administration, often exhibited in childish ways such as groups gathering to burn fake U.S. dollars or smashing iPhones in front of cameras. This is, however, an extremely fragile tranquility.
On February 15, after keeping the position vacant since October 2017, Washington nominated David Satterfield, a career diplomat, as new ambassador to Ankara, an appointment that still needs to be confirmed by the Senate. In Ankara, a complex puzzle awaits Ambassador Satterfield.
There are no signs that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan may rethink -- or even recalibrate -- his assertive neo-Ottoman foreign policy calculus. As the country awaits its critical local elections on March 31, his popularity is augmented by supportive masses who want to "Make Turkey great again." A surprise defeat at the ballot box could be the beginning of the end of Erdoğan's 17-year-old rule.
One of Erdoğan's regional policy priorities, as U.S. troops in neighboring northern Syria prepare to leave, is to prevent Turkey's south from witnessing the emergence of "a Kurdish belt". The U.S. troop pullout could expose Syrian Kurds, U.S. allies in the multinational fight against Islamic State, to the risk of a Turkish military incursion. While the U.S. supports the idea of a buffer zone in northern Syria to keep Kurdish militants and Turkish troops at a safe distance from each other, Erdoğan insists on sole Turkish control over the planned 20-mile-deep strip. The Turkish strongman also rejects a plan by the United States for a multinational force to police the area.
Part of the Turkish-American puzzle is about a rigid plan by Erdoğan to make Turkey the first NATO ally to deploy the Russian-made S-400 air and anti-missile defense system. Turkish authorities, including Erdoğan, have repeatedly refused requests by Turkey's Western allies to drop the Russian deal and go for a Western-made defense architecture. Most recently, on February 20, Turkey's Undersecretary for Defense Industries in charge of military procurements, Ismail Demir, said that the S-400 system would become operational in October.
The S-400 issue is potentially another source of crisis between Washington and Ankara. Demir's remarks looked very much like an official Turkish reply to Vice President Mike Pence who just days ago had repeated warnings to Turkey not to proceed with the S-400 purchase. Pence, speaking at the Munich Security Conference, told attendees "we will not stand idly by while NATO allies purchase weapons from our adversaries. We cannot ensure the defense of the West if our allies grow dependent on the East".
Pence's "we will not stand idly by" warning also involves another Turkish plan to purchase military gear, this time from the West. Turkey is part of a U.S.-led, multinational consortium that builds the F-35 next-generation fighter jet, and has committed to buy at least 100 aircraft. On February 19, Trump signed a spending bill that blocks the transfer of F-35s to Turkey. According to the spending bill, delivery of the jets to Turkey will be blocked until the U.S. Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense submit an update to the report regarding Turkey's S-400 purchase.
If Turkey goes ahead with purchasing Russia's S-400 systems, the Congressional bill requires the U.S. departments to include a detailed description of plans for the imposition of sanctions, pursuant to section 231 of the Countering Russian Influence in Europe and Eurasia Act of 2017 (Public Law 115–44).
Turkey's systematic efforts to support various Islamist groups in the nearby Middle East, as well as in the less-nearby corners of the Mediterranean basin, are a cause of concern for Western countries, including the United States, that have a "stabilizing agenda" for the region. As a result of Erdoğan's ideological kinship with groups such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey is already in a cold war with a long list of regional countries including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel. New tensions were recently added to the list when Libya and Algeria slammed Turkish arms shipments to Islamist militants.
In December, Algerian authorities announced the discovery of an arms shipment from Turkey at the Algerian-Libyan border, including rockets and 48 million rounds of ammunition. An Algerian official told the newspaper al-Watan that "the purpose of such [Turkish] activity is to not only destabilize Libya, but send such an arsenal to unstable regions, including Algeria".
Erdoğan's anti-Western ideology often makes strange bedfellows for Turkey. The most recent is Venezuela, after Turkey joined Russia, China and Iran in backing the battered regime of Nicolas Maduro. When, in November, Trump signed an executive order authorizing sanctions on Venezuelan gold -- after sending an envoy to warn Turkey off the trade -- a mysterious Turkish company, Sardes, with just $1 million in capital, had already shuttled $900 million worth of the precious metal out of Venezuela.
With or without an American ambassador residing in Ankara, there is more than enough evidence to expect a badly bumpy road ahead for the former strategic allies that are now allies only in theory or, in a more realistic lexicon, ideological adversaries.
Burak Bekdil is an Ankara-based columnist. He regularly writes for the Gatestone Institute and Defense News and is a fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is also a founder of, and associate editor at, the Ankara-based think tank Sigma.