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The United States and Turkey are on a collision course. Although the two countries have been NATO allies for nearly 70 years, that partnership has gradually deteriorated over the past few years, as Washington wondered if it could rely on Turkey and Ankara feared that the United States didn't take its security concerns seriously. In the last six months, however, relations have taken a real nose-dive.
In July, Turkey acquired advanced Russian air defense systems over U.S. objections, and in October, it targeted Syrian Kurdish militias allied with the United States as part of an incursion into northern Syria. The United States responded to both developments with indignation and a raft of punitive measures: the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump refused to deliver advanced F-35 fighter jets to Turkey, sanctioned senior Turkish officials, and raised tariffs on Turkish steel exports, while Congress advanced legislation that would impose powerful sanctions on Turkey’s defense industry, called for an investigation of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s finances, and overwhelmingly passed a resolution—for the first time in both houses of Congress—recognizing the 1915 massacre of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as a genocide. Some in Washington are now questioning Turkey’s continued membership in NATO, even though the alliance has no mechanism for expelling a member.
Turkey, in turn, has angrily insisted that it will not back down. It has threatened to buy even more Russian defense equipment, retaliate against U.S. tariff increases, and expel U.S. forces from two critical military bases in Turkey. The latter threat has prompted the United States to explore moving strategic assets out of Turkey and expanding defense cooperation with Greece and some of Turkey’s Gulf rivals, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Less than a decade ago, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama—in which we served—aspired to build a “model partnership” with Turkey. There are high costs to now treating Turkey like a rival, including pushing Ankara closer to U.S. adversaries such as Iran and Russia. To prevent such a disastrous outcome, the Trump administration and Congress both need to better understand the roots of the clash between Turkey and the United States and avoid counterproductive actions that will only drive the two countries further apart. Some level of tension with Ankara is inevitable, given current disagreements, accumulated resentments, and the nationalist sentiments of citizens and legislators in both countries. But smart policies can limit damage and preserve the possibility of better relations in the future.
Although both countries have long lists of grievances, the two most immediate sources of tension are Turkey’s purchase of military equipment from Russia and its invasion of northern Syria. The U.S. desire to punish Ankara for these actions is certainly understandable. Erdogan consistently blamed the Obama administration for neglecting Turkish air defense needs and “refusing” to sell Patriot missiles to Turkey, myths that helped him build domestic support for the purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system and enabled U.S. President Donald Trump to accuse his predecessor of negligence. Neither claim is accurate. Under the aegis of NATO, the United States and its allies deployed Patriots—covering the deployment costs at their own expense—along Turkey’s southern border in 2013, even though the threat of missile attacks from Syria was limited. Washington also offered to sell Turkey Patriots on terms as favorable as it has offered to any other country, but then balked at Erdogan’s demands on pricing and the transfer of technology.
Moreover, U.S. officials were clear from the start that the Russian S-400 system has a sophisticated radar and artificial intelligence logarithm that over time could gather intelligence about the F-35s, threatening the effectiveness of an aircraft that has already cost its U.S. developers hundreds of billions of dollars. Turkey’s claim that the United States never warned of this incompatibility is simply not true.
The gap between Ankara and Washington over Syria is even wider. Having worked closely with a faction of Syrian Kurdish fighters for years in the fight against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, many U.S. officials and soldiers were anguished to watch Trump give Erdogan a green light to sweep into northern Syria. Turkey’s incursion has turned thousands of local residents into refugees, further strengthened Iran and Russia in Syria, and left the United States’ former Kurdish partners no choice but to form closer ties to the regime of Bashar al-Assad on terms favorable to the regime.
Turkey was never going to stand by passively as the United States armed and trained the Kurds.
At the same time, U.S. officials cannot pretend that they don’t understand the motivations behind Turkey’s action. Ankara’s vehement opposition to U.S. support for the People’s Protection Units (YPG)—the Syrian Kurdish group that helped fight much of the campaign against ISIS in northern Syria—was clear from the outset. The YPG’s ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, which both Ankara and Washington consider a terrorist organization, meant that Turkey was never going to stand by passively as the United States armed and trained a group it viewed as an existential threat. After failing to reach an agreement with Ankara for joint military action in Syria in 2014, Washington partnered with the YPG over vociferous Turkish objections. U.S. officials said cooperation with the YPG would be “temporary, transactional and tactical,” but the relationship started to develop elements of permanence—especially as U.S. Special Forces formed bonds with their Kurdish counterparts in the trenches and U.S. diplomats supported reconstruction activities in Kurdish-held areas of Syria. Although there was a diplomatic process underway to address Ankara’s security concerns, Erdogan grew impatient with the pace of talks and pressed the matter with Trump in the October phone call, in which the president acquiesced to the Turkish military intervention.
At this point, what is left of the bilateral relationship is largely sustained by the volatile personal rapport between the two mercurial and populist presidents, both of whom are prone to emotional outbursts and erratic decision-making. Trump has swung wildly between expressing sympathy for Turkey’s position and admiration for Erdogan, and threatening to “destroy and obliterate” the Turkish economy and warning Erdogan to not “be a fool!” In the end, by seeking to preserve close ties with Ankara, he has departed from the views of many of his advisers and members of Congress from both parties. Erdogan, in turn, seems to believe Trump will protect Turkey from congressional anger and serious penalties—as the U.S. president has done so far by refusing to implement congressionally mandated sanctions and publicly sympathizing with Turkish positions—but that could be a dangerous miscalculation.
Despite a November 13 meeting at the White House during which Trump and Erdogan appeared cordial—and after which Trump said he was a “big fan” of the Turkish president—relations appear likely to deteriorate further. On December 9 and 17, respectively, the House and the Senate overwhelmingly passed a defense authorization bill that called on the Trump administration to impose sanctions on Turkey under the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which aims to dissuade countries from purchasing defense equipment from Russia because of its interference in the 2016 U.S. election. On December 11, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 18–4 in favor of a separate sanctions package, similar to one that the House had already passed to punish Ankara for the actions it took in Syria essentially with Trump’s blessing. The Senate could vote on the sanctions package soon.
Sanctioning Turkey’s defense industry could prompt Ankara to buy even more Russian defense equipment—the very outcome that both CAATSA and new legislation aim to deter—which would in turn almost certainly lead to additional U.S. sanctions, further Turkish retaliation, and a downward spiral of tension and resentment. Moreover, Congress’s proposed sanctions will do nothing to reverse Turkey’s intervention in Syria or to stop the operation of the S-400 missile system. They will keep Ankara and Washington at loggerheads, which can only damage U.S. interests in the region.
To find a better way forward, the two presidents should task their top diplomats with exploring practical solutions away from the glare of politics. The new U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, Ambassador to Turkey David Satterfield, and Special Representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey, a former ambassador to Turkey, could work with Turkish counterparts who also want to preserve the relationship.
Opening such a dialogue would not foreclose tougher options. Turkey will almost certainly deploy the S-400 system, and this action should incur a firm U.S. response. The United States should implement CAATSA—which is, after all, already the law—but at least in the short term, it could avoid the legislation's harshest measures, such as the denial of export licenses for defense sales. The Trump administration should not compromise on the issue of incompatibility with the F-35: if Turkey deploys the system and makes its radar fully operational, it should remain excluded from the F-35 program. Even in that scenario, however, Washington should work to isolate the damage by seeking to preserve the broader defense relationship and ensuring that Turkey foregoes any further major defense purchases from Russia.
Separate discussions must continue with Ankara about the future of Syria. Although the United States has lost significant leverage on the ground following its withdrawal and Russia’s takeover of territory formerly controlled by the YPG, it still has forces in Syria and should continue to support efforts to develop sustainable governance and security arrangements in the country. Having allowed Turkey to invade Syria in order to prevent the creation of an autonomous Kurdish entity, Trump should use his relationship with Erdogan to encourage the resumption of the Turkish government’s once-promising peace talks with the PKK, which is the only means of resolving the broader Kurdish question.
Congress may have an even more important role to play when it comes to Syria. Legislators need to think carefully about what they hope to achieve with Syria-related sanctions beyond simply scolding Erdogan or Trump. The purpose of sanctions should be to deter future bad behavior, not just to express anger about past transgressions. Like it or not, Turkey went into northern Syria with Trump’s blessing.
The purpose of sanctions should be to deter bad behavior, not just express anger about past misdeeds.
Congress should use the threat of future sanctions to advance practical, achievable goals. For example, Congress could authorize sanctions that would go into effect if Turkey or Turkish-backed forces commit human rights violations, enter predominantly Kurdish-populated cities, or send forces beyond the agreed “safe zone” along the border between Syria and Turkey. Targeting sanctions in this way might yield positive results, whereas linking them to maximalist but wishful goals, such as a rapid Turkish withdrawal from Syria, as current legislation demands, will only fuel the cycle of retaliation. Instead, the U.S. can offer incentives for better behavior (such as reviving the bid to sell Patriots if the impasse over the S-400s is resolved). At the same time, it should seek to strengthen the less contentious aspects of the relationship (including efforts to expand trade), and keep human rights on the bilateral agenda.
It is particularly important to take these steps that preserve long-term ties. National leaders do not remain in place for perpetuity. Indeed, following widespread losses for Erdogan’s party in municipal elections last year and the recent creation of new parties led by his former allies, Turks have begun for the first time in more than a decade to imagine a future under different leadership. Trump also faces an election in November, raising the prospect of new leadership on both sides that could lead to a fresh start.
Turkey is a strategically located Muslim-majority country with NATO’s second-largest military. As fraught as relations may be at the moment, U.S. interests will suffer if the relationship between the two countries breaks down completely, or if Turkey becomes an actual adversary of the United States. The only actors who would benefit from a deeper rift are those—including Iran and Russia—who want to pull Turkey away from Western powers. That is an outcome the United States must seek to avoid.