The Controversy of Ankara-Washington under Trump

11 m.   |  2020-06-29

In recent years, the relationship between Turkey and the USA have strained, causing deep mistrust between the two allies. The situation peaked with it even being labeled a “systemic crisis” in bilateral relations. According to one expert, the “strategic partnership” transformed into “Strategic enmity”.

Within the last 70 years tensions in relations have led to a diplomatic crisis, accompanied by sanctions, such as in 1974, after the Turkish invasion of Cyprus but in general this latest tit for tat has been unprecedented.

The Case of the Protestant Pastor Andrew Branson

I n November 2016, Turkish Police arrested protestant pastor Andrew Branson and his wife in Izmir, accusing them of cooperating with Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has described as the organizer of the 2016 coup de dat attempt as well as a supporter of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) [1]. Branson, who was under house arrest, faced up to 35 years in prison.

Branson’s arrest made relations significantly worse and mutual harsh rhetoric also increased the antagonizm between the two nations. In August 2018, USA imposed sanctions on two members of the Turkish Government, Turkey’s Minister of Justice Abdulhamit Gul and Minister of Interior Suleyman Soylu, who played a leading role in the arrest of the pastor. The property of the two ministers in the United States was seized [2]. Turkey, in its turn, imposed similar sanctions on US Government officials, Minister of Justice Jeff Sessions and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

With political issues shifting to the economic sphere the United States announced the increase in tariffs on steel (by 50%) and aluminum (by 20%) imported from Turkey. Shortly after Washington imposed sanctions, the Turkish lira depreciated by 20% to its lowest level in history against the dollar. Some experts consider US sanctions to be the reason for the devaluation of the Turkish lira and the deteriorating economic situation in Turkey [3].

Erdogan, described this situation as an “economic siege” and the fall in the national currency as a result of an “attack” on Turkey [4]. This followed with Turkey’s retaliatory sanctions against the United States with customs duties on more than 22 goods imported from the United States were revised by Erdogan. Customs duties on imports of American passenger cars increased by 120%, on alcoholic beverages by 140%, on tobacco and other goods by 60% [5].

On August 14, 2018, speaking at the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) 17th anniversary congress, Erdogan announced that they would boycott American electronic products. In Particular, he noted Samsung as an alternative to iphone, or in the potential of using their own technological capabilities such as Venus Vestel (manufactures smartphones and other electronic devices). Speaking about the ongoing economic crisis in Turkey, he added that the current fluctuations in the lira have no economic basis and reflect the “global campaign led by Trump’s administration” [6]. He also warned that Turkey will seek for new friends and allies, if Washington didn’t abandon its unilateral policy towards Turkey [7].

Pastor Branson’s meeting with D. Trump at the White House, after being freed, source

Finally, the diplomatic crisis caused by Branson’s arrest was resolved in October 2018. The Turkish court sentenced him to a three-year imprisonment, but set him free, taking into account that he had been under house arrest for three years. Later Turkey and the United States unilaterally lifted sanctions on ministers [8]. Although Branson’s case was closed, according to American experts, the general tension hadn’t subsided [9],[10].

Reza Zarrab’s Arrest. Iranian Trace

A Another incident that affected Turkey-US relations during this crisis period was in 2017 when FBI agents in New York arrested Hallbank Deputy Chief Executive Mehmet Hakan Atilla for violating sanctions against Iran. This criminal case was linked to an Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab [11], who was arrested in the USA and was accused of financial fraud.

According to US prosecutors, the defendants created a major international money laundering system, which was implemented by fraudulent companies registered in Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. In particular, the defendants were able to hide from US financial institutions Iran’s involvement. The fact that behind the international monetary transactions were Turkish and Emirati companies were actually Iranian authorities, which were under sanctions [12]. Furthermore, former Halkbank President Suleyman Aslan and former Turkish Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan and many others, who were engaged in financial fraud, were among those charged [13].

Mehmet Atilla was sentenced to 32 months imprisonment in the United States. Erdogan stated that bilateral legal agreements with the United States are losing their force. This trial was seen by a number of Turkish politicians as a new coup attempt and a “conspiracy” against Turkey, linking it to Fethullah Gulen and his supporters, who apparently have been supporting the US authorities through various mechanisms [14].

After being released from the US prison, Mehmet Hakan Atilla was welcomed by Turkey's Treasury and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak at Istanbul Airport, source

This incident also had a negative impact on Turkish-American relations and even after the release of Atilla (in 2019), who later was elected General Director of the Istanbul Stock Exchange, didn’t actually reduce mutual tension between the two countries .

Military-political Issues


he biggest concern of the United States was Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 (Triumph) air defense missile system and Syria-related issues. (“Peace Spring” Operation) Trump’s administration once again spoke about the sanctions. These sanctions are one of the preferred instruments of US foreign policy to reign in Turkey.

Turkey started negotiations on the sale of the S-400 (Triumph) air defense missile system from Russia in 2016. The USA announced that Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 would have serious consequences on Turkey-US relations. The United States blackmailed Turkey, to abandon the acquisition of these systems but to no avail promising to minimize the consequences if they were willing to start a meaningful dialogue with the USA [15].

The USA warned that it would impose sanctions on a number of Turkish companies cooperating with Russia in the field of defense under the CAATSA “Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act” [16].

On July 12, 2019, Turkey received the first batch of S-400 from Russia. Democrat Senator Chris Van Hollen noted on his Twitter page that Turkey made a very disturbing choice. If Turkey doesn’t change its policy regarding the S400 purchase, it won’t receive the new F-35 aircraft and will be subject to appropriate sanctions by the United States.

In response to Ankara’s purchase of the Russian air-defense system, Americans suspended the Turkish partners’ participation in the F-15 Fifth Generation International Fighter Program, which Turkey has been involved in since 2002. Despite that, in May 2020, D. Trump announced that Turkey still supplies some parts of the F-35 [17]. It should be added, that about 1000 parts of F-35 are produced in Turkey and according to a recent report («F-35 JOINT STRIKE FIGHTER», Report to Congressional Committees, May 2020), withdrawing Turkey from the F-35 program could increase production risks.

One of the key factors affecting Turkish-American relations is the situation in the Middle East. The controversies between the two states became more vivid during the Syrian conflict, which was obviously manifested during the “Peace Spring” operations launched in Northern Syria on October 9, 2019. This military action was directed against Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which are deemed a “terrorist” organization by Ankara and against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDS) armed group [18].

Washington officially stated that he wouldn’t hinder Turkey, but didn’t plan to take part in these operations and was going to withdraw its troops deployed in the military zone [19]. On October 7, 2019, President Trump warned that if:

At the same time, the United States announced the imposing sanctions on Turkey for its actions in Syria. Both the Ministries of Defense and Energy, as well as the Ministers of Defense (Hulisi Akar), Interior (Fatih Donmez) and Energy (Suleyman Solu) appeared to be targeted by sanctions. Trump also didn’t exclude the use of economic sanctions, referred to the bilateral trade agreements reached and the increase of customs duties on some goods.

Turkish-American negotiations on Syria in Ankara, 2019, source

As a result of Turkish-American negotiations held in Ankara on October 17, 2019, it was decided to stop the “Peace Spring” Operation for five days. Besides, the sides agreed that during this period, Kurdish groups will be withdrawn from the border areas, which Turkey has defined as a “security zone” through the help of Americans [20]. On October 23, when Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced, that Turkey stopped hostilities in northeastern Syria, the USA removed sanctions imposed on two ministries and tree ministers of Turkey.

Regional and other issues have caused disagreements and contradictions in the relations between the two countries. Although some issues of policy were resolved, Turkish-American allied relations are undergoing serious tribulations and with an atmosphere of continuing distrust. There are certain preconditions for it. Particularly, Turkish-American controversies can be expressed (there are still some contradictions) in the Syrian conflict (including the Kurdish issue), Turkish-Iranian and Turkish-Israeli relations, within the context of military and energy-economic rapprochement with Russia, as well as human rights in Turkey, the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, and the search and drilling of gas in the exclusive economic zone in Cyprus. There will also be future disagreements over military-security issues, which may arise within the framework of Ankara-Washington bilateral and multilateral relations, including the partnership with NATO.

[1] U.S. Pastor Goes On Trial In Turkey, Further Straining Relations

[2] Treasury Sanctions Turkish Officials with Leading Roles in Unjust Detention of U.S. Pastor Andrew Brunson

[3] Эрдоган стал главной угрозой для экономики Турции

[4] Erdoğan: Ekonomik kuşatma altındayız

[5] Турция повысила ввозные пошлины на ряд американских товаров

[6] Turkish President Erdoğan vows to boycott US electronic goods, including iPhone

[7] Erdogan: How Turkey Sees the Crisis With the U.S.

[8] США и Турция взаимно отменили санкции против министров

[9] Turkey frees US pastor, but bumps in relationship remain

[10] Rahip Brunson sonrası Türk-Amerikan ilişkileri masaya yatırıldı

[11] It should be noted that the latter was accused by the Turkish court of bribing officials at the level of the Turkish Council of Ministers for taking action in favor of Iran. However, after Erdogan’s intervention, the case was closed, США обвинили бывшего турецкого министра в сговоре с целью уклонения от санкций в отношении Ирана

[12] Ландроматы как ключевое оружие в иранском «экономическом джихаде» против санкций

[13] S-400'ler, Sarraf ve Çağlayan

[14] Hakan Atilla'nın ABD'de yargılandığı davada neler yaşandı? , 

Спецслужбы США пытаются оказать давление на Турцию

[15] США готовы обсуждать компенсацию последствий отказа Турции от С-400

[16] Trump Weighs New Sanctions on Turkey Over Russian Missiles

[17] Trump'tan Türkiye'de üretilen F-35 parçalarına ilişkin açıklama: Vermiyoruz derlerse ne yaparız?

[18] Командующий войсками США на Ближнем Востоке тайно посетил Сирию

[19] США дали зеленый свет операции Турции против сирийских курдов

[20] СМИ: курды согласились на объявленное США и Турцией прекращение огня