In theory, Turkey and the United States have been staunch allies since the predominately Muslim nation became a NATO member state in 1952. Also, in theory, the leaders of the two allies are on friendly terms. President Donald Trump gave "very high marks" to Turkey's increasingly autocratic, Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during the Turkish leader's recent visit to Washington when his security detail attacked peaceful protesters.
It is puzzling why Trump gave a passionately (and ideologically) pro-Hamas, pro-Muslim Brotherhood, Islamist leader "very high marks." But in reality, the Ankara-Washington axis could not be farther from diplomatic niceties such as "allies" or "very high marks."
This is a select (and brief) recent anatomy of what some analysts call "hostage diplomacy" between the two "staunch NATO allies."
In June this year, Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Survey, covering a total of 37 countries, revealed that 79% of Turks had an unfavorable opinion of the U.S. That was the second-highest among the countries surveyed, after 82% in Jordan. Anti-American sentiment in Turkey is 27% higher than in Russia, and more than twice as high as the global median of 39%.
There are reports that six Turkish government banks face billions of dollars in fines from the U.S. over alleged violations of Iran sanctions.
Turkey is keeping in jail, among a dozen or so others, a NASA scientist who was vacationing with relatives in Turkey, and a Christian missionary who has lived in Turkey for 23 years. Others include a visiting chemistry professor from Pennsylvania and his brother, a real-estate agent. All of them face long prison sentences for allegedly playing a part in last year's failed coup against Erdogan's government.
There is little doubt that the U.S. citizens are being held in Turkey as a bargaining chip to pressure Washington to extradite Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, a former Erdogan ally and allegedly the mastermind behind the attempted putsch. Erdogan himself does not hide his intentions. If Gülen were handed over, Erdogan said, he would sort out the American pastor's judicial case. "Give him to us and we will put yours through the judiciary; we will give him to you," he said recently.
Early in October, as "hostage diplomacy" intensified, the "staunch allies" U.S. and Turkey stopped issuing non-immigrant visas to each others' citizens -- a restriction that has already affected thousands of travelers. The first ban came from the U.S., then Turkey retaliated. The U.S. move came after Turkey's arrest of a U.S. consulate employee, a Turkish citizen, on charges that he had links to Gülen. The visa ban put Turkey in the same category of countries such as Chad, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Venezuela and Yemen. Erdogan also claims that the U.S. is hiding a suspect in its Istanbul consulate who is also linked to Gülen.
Erdogan apparently wants to raise the stakes. A Turkish court earlier in October convicted -- in absentia -- a Wall Street Journal reporter of producing "terrorist propaganda" in Turkey and sentenced her to more than two years in prison. Ayla Albayrak was sentenced for writing an August 2015 article which, the judges ruled, violated Turkey's anti-terror laws. Had Albayrak not been in New York at the time of the verdict, she would have joined nearly 200 journalists already jailed in Turkey.
Adding insult to injury over the "very high marks," Erdogan claims that the U.S., not Turkey, is uncivilized and undemocratic. In an Oct. 21 speech, he said that the U.S. indictment against his bodyguards was "undemocratic." He said, "They say the United States is the cradle of democracy. This can't be true. This can't be democracy ... I'm sorry, but I cannot say that country [the U.S.] is civilized."
A kind of "transactional relationship" is, of course, understandable, given U.S. interests in a volatile region of the world where Turkey happens to be one of the state actors. All the same, the U.S. administration does not have the luxury of maintaining a game in which it views Turkey as a "staunch ally" and Erdogan as a leader with "very high marks." This make-believe policy toward Turkey will only further poison whatever is left of what once was a genuinely staunch alliance.
Turkey is clearly no longer a "staunch ally." Take the most significant geostrategic regional calculation in northern Syria: What Ankara views as the biggest security threat are U.S. allies fighting the Islamic State: the Syrian Kurds.
Ever since the Iraqi Kurds held a referendum (and voted "yes") on independence, on September 25, Turkey has aligned itself with Iran and the Iran-controlled government in Iraq, who view the Kurdish political movement as a major threat.
Ever since the Iraqi Kurds held a referendum on independence, on September 25, Turkey has aligned itself with Iran and the Iran-controlled government in Iraq, who view the Kurdish political movement as a major threat. Pictured: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left) meets with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, on September 24, 2014. (Image source: Iranian President's Office)
In addition, the anti-American sentiment in Turkey (part of which has been fueled by the Islamist government that has been in power since 2002) may push Turkey further into a Russian-led axis of regional powers, including Iran. Erdogan will not wish to look pro-American ahead of critical presidential elections in 2019 when 79% of Turks have an unfavorable opinion of the U.S.
Moreover, the idea of unifying Sunnis against the Shiite bloc is more difficult than it may look. Sunni Turks view Sunni Kurds, as an existential threat who are -- allied with Shiite Iran and Iran-controlled Iraq, which contains Kurds.
Saudi Arabia and Turkey also found themselves at the opposite ends of the crisis surrounding Qatar -- all Sunni.
Burak Bekdil, one of Turkey's leading journalists, was recently fired from Turkey's leading newspaper after 29 years, for writing what was taking place in Turkey for Gatestone. He is a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.