Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s bid to get re-elected in the snap poll on June 24 cannot be in doubt. But seventy days is a long time in politics and Erdogan’s main opponent, a 54-year old former physics teacher, is famous for combative rhetoric.
The surcharged political climate provides the context for the extraordinary remarks by Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in a television interview on May 6 by riding on the wings of Turkish nationalism. Nonetheless, the salience lies in Ankara’s deepening disillusion over the doublespeak in the US’ regional policies.
Cavusoglu underscored Turkey’s determination to pursue independent foreign policies and its firm rejection of US pressure tactic. He threatened in particular that Turkey will “absolutely retaliate” if the US halted weapons sales to Turkey or imposes sanctions in reaction to the Turkish government’s purchase of S-400 anti-ballistic missile systems from Russia. “This is no longer the old Turkey,” Cavusoglu warned.
He added, “They (US) should not question our good ties with Russia. The West should abandon this understanding. Countries in this geography have to pursue a balanced policy. Our NATO membership is not an obstacle for us to establish good ties with other countries.”
Cavusoglu said the US can “no longer impose its own policies on other countries in the world” or sanction countries unilaterally. During the interview, he also noted Turkey’s continued support for the Iran nuclear deal – “We, as Turkey, want the continuation of the agreement. But if the agreement would be amended, it should be done through consensus. We are ready to contribute.”
Cavusoglu made these remarks just about a week after meeting with his Russian and Iranian counterparts in Moscow on April 28 where in a joint statement, the three foreign ministers hailed “the efficiency of the Astana format as the only international initiative that had helped practically improve the situation in Syria.” The joint statement forcefully rejected, in a clear reference to US military presence in northern Syria, “all attempts to create new realities on the ground under the pretext of combating terrorism and… separatist agendas aimed at undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria as well as the national security of neighboring countries.”
Turkey senses that the Trump administration is playing for time while making the pledge to remove the Syrian Kurdish militia from Manbij along Turkish border which they captured with active military support from US. Cavusoglu hopes to pin down US State Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to the US pledge, which was made by his predecessor Rex Tillerson way back in mid-February.
But Ankara is losing hope. Then, there are other explosive issues. The verdict in the trial of Turkish banker Mehmet Harkan Ailla in a Manhattan federal court was expected on May 7 and now stands postponed to May 12. (The prosecution demanded a 20-year prison term for Atilla.) The verdict can be very damaging. In the downstream, US may sanction Turkish banks (which had allegedly violated Washington’s sanctions against Iran a few years ago.)
In fact, Turkey already seems to be facing an intensifying economic and financial storm originating from Washington. On April 30, the International Monetary Fund posted a warning that Turkish economy is showing “clear signs of overheating” (after expanding 7.4% in 2017 as against potential growth pegged at 3.5% to 4%.) On May 1, Standard & Poor’s dealt a surprise blow by downgrading Turkish economy to double-B-minus, on the specious plea that it feared a “hard landing.” Such things do not happen by coincidence.
Of course, all this is happening in the run-up to the presidential election on June 24, which Erdogan hopes to win on a campaign manifesto that promises that the economy will be “more resistant to outer shocks and financial blows... (and) even more attractive to investors.”
Again, there is the intriguing tale of two pastors. The US is dragging its feet on the Turkish request to extradite Islamist preacher Fetullah Gulen (who lives in exile in Pennsylvania) on charges of masterminding the failed coup against Erdogan in July 2015. On the other hand, Turkey detained an American pastor Andrew Brunson in October 2016 and put him on trial for being a “Gulenist” and a spy. President Trump recently tweeted that he can’t brook the continued detention of Brunson, “a fine gentleman and a Christian leader in the United States.”
However, the crunch time comes when Pompeo meets Cavusoglu in Washington in the coming weeks to discuss Manbij. Meanwhile, last Thursday, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert strongly criticized the Turkish measures in Syria’s Kurdish canton of Afrin. She said, “We’ve been watching the situation very carefully in Afrin. 140,000 people have been displaced from Afrin and as far as we can tell, they are not being allowed back into their homes… We have expressed grave concern about it, and it remains a concern of ours.”
Nauert’s remarks could be the foreplay for the Trump administration to backtrack on the pledge regarding Manbij. But the bottom line is that Washington is systematically puncturing the sails of Turkish nationalism to cut Erdogan adrift. Nauert touched the Achilles’ heel by alleging that Turkey adopts demographic change in Kurdish homelands as state policy.
The Kurdish votes can be decisive in the upcoming Turkish poll on June 24. The big question is how far Washington will interfere in the upcoming poll to influence its outcome.