Since relations between the U.S. and Turkey sank to a low point in August, the two countries have resolved a two-year standoff over an American pastor detained in Turkey. However, more complex issues continue to divide the NATO allies and threaten new crises. They include the fallout from a 2016 attempted coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s plans to buy a missile-defense system from Russia, and the U.S. alliance with a militia in Syria that Turkey considers a foe. The two countries affirm the need to maintain their alliance, but the rifts that have surfaced have eroded trust on both sides.
1. What’s the coup attempt have to do with the U.S.?
For Erdogan, the failed coup remains a festering sore. So does Washington’s reluctance to extradite Fethullah Gulen, the Turkish cleric living in exile in Pennsylvania whom Erdogan accuses of orchestrating the botched putsch. American officials say Turkey’s evidence against Gulen, who moved to the U.S. two decades ago and lives in a compound in the Pocono Mountains, is insufficient to extradite him. Claiming that Gulen’s followers had set up a “deep state” by infiltrating security services, schools and courts, Erdogan initiated a purge of the civil service that’s cost about 130,000 people their jobs. Turkish officials also arrested American Andrew Brunson, an Evangelical preacher, on charges of involvement in the overthrow effort.
2. Why did that precipitate a crisis?
While Turkish officials said the Brunson case was a judicial matter and not political, Erdogan deepened U.S. suspicions that the pastor was being held as a bargaining chip when he suggested last year that Turkey could release him in exchange for Gulen. “Give a pastor, take a pastor,” he said. Insisting Brunson was unjustly detained, the U.S. pressured Turkey to release him by imposing sanctions against Minister of Justice Abdulhamit Gul and Minister of Interior Suleyman Soylu, sending Turkish financial markets plunging. Turkey retaliated with measures against U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen. After a Turkish court freed Brunson in October, both countries dropped their sanctions.
3. Are there other signs of a rapprochement?
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Nov. 5 that Turkey was one of eight countries given a temporary waiver from new American sanctions punishing countries that buy Iranian oil. Erdogan has said that talks with the U.S. over its concerns regarding operations of Turkish state-lender Halkbank are on a “positive path.” Turkish and U.S. forces started joint patrols Nov. 1 in rural areas of the northwestern Syrian town of Manbij. And the U.S. on Nov. 6 announced rewards for information leading to three senior members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has been fighting for autonomy inside Turkey for more than three decades. It was the first such action by the U.S. since it joined Turkey in branding the group a terrorist organization in 1997.
4. What continues to strain ties?
Apart from the argument over Gulen’s extradition, the biggest issues are the unresolved matter of Halkbank, Ankara’s plans to purchase a missile-defense system from Russia despite strong opposition from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and differences over the war in Syria. Turkey is struggling to secure the release of its citizen Mehmet Hakan Atilla, former head of international banking at Halkbank, who was convicted in a New York court earlier this year of participating in a scheme to help Iran evade U.S. financial sanctions. Turkey alleges the case relied on fabricated evidence given by followers of Gulen.
5. So what if Turkey buys Russian missile defenses?
The Russian S-400 system isn’t compatible with NATO technology. That has fueled demands in the U.S. to put on hold planned deliveries of F-35 fighter jets to Turkey, where portions of the Lockheed Martin Co. plane are being built. The U.S. fears that the Russian system could be used to collect intelligence on the F-35’s stealth capabilities.
6. What are the divisions over Syria?
Under President Barack Obama, the U.S. decided its most reliable ally in the fight against Islamic State in Syria was a Kurdish-led militia and gave it extensive support. That riled Turkey, which sees the militia as an affiliate of the PKK. Turkey called on Trump to reverse Obama’s policy, but instead he doubled down and decided to directly arm the Syrian Kurds. Turkish forces have attacked the militia in Syria. In late October, Turkey shelled the fighters near the northern Kurdish stronghold of Kobani as the U.S. expressed “great concern” over the security of American forces deployed in the area. The U.S. also said Turkey’s military drive was slowing the campaign against Islamic State, a claim that Erdogan’s spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, denied.
7. Any other sore points?
At least three additional people detained in Turkey in connection with the 2016 coup attempt and links to the separatist Kurdish group of PKK have attracted U.S. attention and fueled strains. They are former NASA scientist Serkan Golge and two Turkish employees of U.S. diplomatic missions, including Metin Topuz of Istanbul consulate and Hamza Ulucay of Adana consulate. The U.S. says they’re innocent.
8. Is Turkey looking elsewhere for allies?
Ties are warming between Turkey and Russia, even though they’ve supported opposing sides in the Syrian civil war and Turkey shot down a Russian warplane backing Syrian government forces in 2015, saying it entered its airspace. Under a deal with Russia and its ally Iran, Turkey deployed troops in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province with the goal of creating a demilitarized zone, and it’s sought the support of France and Germany for a push to find a political solution to the conflict.
9. What could keep Turkey in the U.S.’s orbit?
Common interests have prevented past disputes from escalating into a permanent rupture, and those shared interests remain. Turkey depends on short-term foreign investments from Americans and others who take a lead from Washington. Meanwhile, the U.S. is short of dependable allies among Islamic countries in the Middle East, a region where Russia and Iran are ascendant. Trump is promising a much tougher line against Iran, and may not want to push Turkey too far into the opposing camp. Turkey has NATO’s second-biggest army and is home to the strategic Incirlik Air Base, which is used for operations against Islamic State.
To contact the reporter on this story: Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Onur Ant at email@example.com, Amy Teibel, Lisa Beyer
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