A Rubicon crossed
Yesterday, the US did what it had threatened to do for months by sanctioning Turkey. While the threats of US sanctions sanctions against Turkey were delivered by multiple US officials regarding several issues of dispute throughout much of 2018, the fact that the state with NATO’s largest military has now sanctioned the NATO member with the second largest military clearly attests to the fact that a major Rubicon has been crossed.
While Turkey remains intent on finalising its deal for the delivery of the Russian made S-400 missile defence systems, the sanctions that the US Department of The Treasury just levelled against Turkey are not related to America’s CAATSA sanctions designed to punish countries for buying weapons from Russia, Iran or the DPRK. Instead, the US invoked powers to sanction individuals in foreign states under a precedent set by the controversial Obama era Magnitsky Act of 2012. In this case, the issue provoking the sanctions so far as the US is concerned is the strange matter of Andrew Brunson – a US national who has been indicted for collusion with terrorist groups by a Turkish court.
The sanctions the US levelled against Turkey will for now be limited to Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul and Interior Minister Suleyman. Yet in directly targeted two respected ministers of state, the US has clearly crossed a line by sanctioning a traditional ally.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry condemned America’s “hostile stance” while Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu who is currently in Singapore for meetings with ASEAN partners stated,
“The US move to impose sanctions against two our ministers will not remain unanswered. We will not be able to resolve our problems unless the US administration realises that its attempts to push its illegal demands through such methods are futile”.
Even if the issue can be resolved, a great deal of damage has been done to any future spirit of trust in Turko-US relations.
America and Turkey’s multiple disagreements
—The F-35 deal
Not only did the US threaten to cancel the long planned transfer of F-35 jets to Turkey due to Turkey’s desire to finalise a deal with Russia for the purchase of the S-4000 missile defence systems (systems incapable of being used as offensive weapons), but the US also threatened to sanction Turkey over the matter.
While countries including India also faced the threat of sanctions over buying Russian weapons, unlike New Delhi, Ankara has been fully consistent in stating that the threat of such sanctions simply for doing security deals with Russia is not befitting of the behaviour of a long time partner. Turkey has remained firm that in pursuing an independent foreign policy which aims at good relations with both Russia and the US, there is no danger of any party’s interests being compromised.
Turkey later said to the US that no Russian military advisers would train Turkish military personnel on using the S-400 on Turkish soil and that further more, Turkey intends to manufacture Russian designed missile defence systems on its own soil in the future. Thus, there was simply no way that somehow Russia could be in close proximity to Turkey’s other NATO hardware.
Here, Turkey proposed a win-win situation and consequently, the US looked for new means of provoking Turkey.
The US has long fought beside the YPG, the Syrian based branch of the PKK terror group in northern Syria. While the US continues to list the PKK as a terrorist body, it had no reservations about arming, funding and fighting beside the group near Turkey’s southern borders.
In spite of this danger, Turkey offered to compromise on the matter by working with the US to remove the YPG/PKK from the Syrian city of Manbij while both sides made a commitment to rid northern Syria of terrorism collectively in the future.
Here again, Turkey proposed a win-win situation and consequently, the US looked for new means of provoking Turkey.
While the Obama administration failed to issue any meaningful condemnation of the Fethullah Terror Organisation even after it perpetrated an attempted coup against the legitimate government of Turkey in July of 2016, the Trump administration has also been lukewarm in its rhetoric on one of the world’s most dangerous terror organisations.
Furthermore, the fact that FETO double agents working at US consular facilities in Turkey have been arrested due to their ties with FETO when combined with the fact that the US refuses to extradite FETO’s leader Fethullah Gulen who currently lives as a free man on US soil, has all congealed to make Turkey increasingly suspicious of just what the US plans are regarding a hated terror group.
Turkey was the first Muslim majority nation to recognise Israel and while relations have recently been downgraded, each country maintains contacts. However, as Turkey’s President Erdogan has continually championed the cause of Palestinian justice, both internal factions in Israel and anti-Turkish forces in the Arab world have conspired to drive Tel Aviv into a more anti-Ankara position.
Given that the Israel lobby in the US remains incredibly influential, it is significant they have now teamed up with traditional Turkish antagonists in the Kurdish, Armenian and Hellenic lobbies in order to create a trans-continental anti-Turkish front that is rapidly gaining traction in the US congress.
While Turkey continues to advocate a two-state solution with East Jerusalem/al-Quds as the Palestinian capital, Turkey is only “guilty” of speaking up on an issue of international concern where Arab leaders and other powerful regional nations have remained silent.
As the US maintains a great deal of military firepower on Turkish soil intended to in part “defend Israel” in the event of a larger war, is the US really going to harm Turkey because its President supports Palestinian freedom and dignity? Only a supremely naive analysis could lead to such a conclusion.
Here, the US could not reasonably justify Erdogan’s position on Palestine as a means of sanctions so the US looked for new means of provoking Turkey.
Turkey has likewise stated that even when the US re-instates sanctions in Iran in November, this will not impact Turkey’s positive economic relations with its eastern neighbour. Furthermore, Turkey has refused to be bullied by so-called second party sanctions as it relates to Iran any more than is the case regarding Russia.
The US may well have its hand full in November when it comes to nations throughout the world continuing to do business with Iran in spite of the threat of US sanctions on any nation who continues to transact with Tehran.
If the countries that thus far have said that they will continue to transact with Iran including China, Germany, Russia, France, Britain, India, the EU as a whole and others continue to do so, is the US really going to put new sanctions on all of them, especially considering that some of these countries are close US allies?
Here, the US is at least for now going back to the drawing board when it comes to looking for new excuses to sanction Turkey.
Who is Andrew Brunson?
Andrew Brunson is a US national who has lived in Turkey for decades where he ran an Evangelical church in İzmir. In 2016 he was arrested and later indicted for colluding with the terrorist groups PKK and FETO. While Brunson’s individual case would normally not make international headlines, the US has begun ratcheting up its rhetoric on Brunuson, stating that he is innocent of all charges and should be released immediately.
Forgetting the fact that the US is a nation that continues to hold prisoners without change at Guantanamo Bay, some of whom have been in US custody for over fifteen years, sees fit to lecture Turkey which is providing the accused with a full and by all accounts fair trial, there is more at play than meets the eye.
The fact is that logically, Turkey has no need to embellish charges against Brunson not least because Turkey looks forward to welcoming US tourists to its historic cities and would not want to frighten them off by randomly arresting an American. The fact of the matter is that Brunson was someone who lived in Turkey not as a tourist but as a religious worker for many years and as such Brunson has no excuse not to accept the judicial system of the country he has called home for so long. Furthermore, due to the seriousness of the charges, if the US actually cared about a genuine global war on terrorism, they would wait for the court system in their long time partner nation to reach a final verdict regarding Brunson’s activities.
The Brunson smokescreen
Instead of waiting for the verdict, the US has turned an otherwise internationally forgettable case into a wider and very public anti-Turkish crusade. There are two main reasons behind this:
First of all, while the military-industrial complex including both the Pentagon and Lockheed-Martin the makers of the F-35s remain committing to America’s longstanding alliance with Turkey, elements of an academia-industrial complex that has risen to prominence in the US media, Congress, think tank culture and intelligence agencies ever since the Obama years, has embraced a wide ranging Turkophobic agenda that stretches far beyond Andrew Brunson.
In this sense, elements in the US want to punish Turkey for its independent economic and security policies under the fiercely multipolar Presidency of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Here, the Brunson matter is simply one of the easiest inroads to implement sanctions against Turkey because while it invokes a wider Turkophobic narrative, it does not directly challenge the American military-industrial complex’s generally pro-Ankara position as the sanctions in question relate to an internal judicial matter in Turkey rather than one of military/security policy.
Secondly, while Donald Trump himself is not and will likely never be an Evangelical, his Vice President Mike Pence is a fanatical Evangelical and it is widely thought that he is behind pushing the US President on the Brunson matter in an attempt to pander to the Evangelical voter base prior to November’s midterm elections. In this sense, the most Turkophobic elements in Washington have found in Brunson an easily geopolitical pawn to secure mutual advantage from their own deeply worrying perspectives.
Does the US actually want FETO to take over Turkey?
One normally does not need to ask if an ally is planning on using a terrorist organisation to destabilise another ally, but recent trends in Turko-US relations have proved otherwise. Many in Turkey continue to maintain that US intelligence agencies had a substantial hand in the attempted FETO coup of 2016. Clearly elements in the US has a motivation for provoking such lawlessness. If FETO were able to successfully overthrow the legitimate Turkish government, a new illegal FETO regime would likely be far more reliant on the US (just as the group’s leader is now) vis-a-vis the current Turkish government. Clearly, the appearance of a FETO regime would play into the American zero-sum strategy in international relations.
However, owing to the last two years in which a relatively placid but nevertheless highly serious state of emergency in Turkey allowed the responsible authorities to more or less extricate FETO’s influence from all levels of Turkish society, the danger of future FETO attempts at lawless regime change have been deeply minimised.
Because of this, the Turkophobic elements in the US intelligence agencies have lost the primary tool in their regime change toolbox while the Pentagon under the surprisingly rational James “Mad Dog” Mattis would likely never approve any moves to destabilise Turkey. Because of this, the main judge, jury and executioner of Turkophobia in Washington is now the Treasury Department rather than the CIA, even though the CIA is by no means finished with its pursuit of an extremist agenda in the region. Turkey should therefore be prepared for future sanctions at this rate if Ankara continues with its S-400 deal and likewise, continues to transact with Iran after US sanctions come back into place against Tehran in November.
Without seeking such a position, Turkey is now the international test case to see how a country other than China and Russia is able to resist US economic pressure. With the US threatening sanctions against countries as diverse as India, Russia, Iran and the states of the European Union, while further tariffs are being threatened against China, Turkey’s ability to pursue multipolarity in the face of these threats from the US will be instructive to nations from across the planet.
If Turkey is able to maintain its position of strength in the face of the threat of further US sanctions, other nations will likely be inspired to also defy US threats and in so doing, the US will actually be unintentionally sanctioning itself if the countries it targets end up trading with the wider world except for the United States.
In this sense, the Brunson ordeal may likely merely be the opening salvo in a wider period of strain between the US and Turkey. Unless the US military-industrial complex and restrain the academia-industrial complex, this will likely be the case.