At the White House it is not advisable to insist too much. The Turkish leader guarantees the USA and NATO important strategic interests in the Middle East. He could look to Russia, China or Iran.
There is no easing off in the diplomatic war between the USA and Turkey; indeed, it seems to be intensifying. Relations between the two countries had worsened following the failed coup in July 2016. Ankara accused Washington of having organised that military operation but the White House denied any involvement, even though it is undeniable that the USA considers its ally Erdogan a troublesome president, little disposed to be influenced or to agree easily.
To add further fuel to the conflict, there was the matter of the American evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson, held in Turkey since October 2016, a few months after the aborted putsch, in the context of an extensive campaign of arrests and purges affecting a large part of those opposed to Erdogan, including those who were foreigners, among them 25 Americans.Brunson, who headed an evangelical community at Izmir, was placed under house arrest last July, accused of spying and terrorism.
The White House denies that the pastor is one of its secret agents and demands his unconditional release. Trump has also threatened to resort to political and economic pressure. In this line, two ministers of the present Turkish government have been sanctioned. Nevertheless, the Sultan shows no signs of complying with the diktat of Washington.
Erdogan has recently declared that Trump intends «to wage a trade war against the whole world » and accuses it of «creating a conspiracy against his country ». The Turkish government fears that one day Washington may impose heavy embargoes and sanctions on it, as it is doing with Iran or, even worse, with Venezuela. Ankara has already arranged for the withdrawal of its gold reserves (220 tons) from American banks, between 2016 and 2017, fearing they may be confiscated in the event of sanctions.
The USA is well aware of the Turkish economic crisis. The economic boom that made Erdogan and his AKP party popular in the past has receded. The balance of payments is in the red with the country importing double its exports and the Turkish lira is much weaker against the dollar. But how far will the American government go to force Erdogan to bend to its will? Making too many demands could be very harmful to the USA and the whole of NATO. They could lose a strategic ally that hitherto has guaranteed to protect their immense geostrategic interests in the Middle East.
The Turkish president knows he has not got his back to the wall and could turn to the Orient, taking a structural view of Russia, China and Iran to which he has been making advances for some years. Despite the Trump’s unpredictability, it is not likely that the American establishment will run such a risk. The clash will most probably be confined within the diplomatic field as this suits America best of all. The case of the American pastor held by the Turkish authorities will certainly not be allowed to cause such harm. The matter seems more likely a “Trumpish” item for domestic consumption. The conservative evangelicals make up an important part of Trump’s electorate and there will be medium-term elections in the USA in November.
Mostafa El Ayoub
Middle East Analyst