Trump Puts Turkey Alliance on the Line With Standoff Over Pastor

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump’s latest move against Turkey has made an already bad relationship worse, raising the risk the U.S. may have to do without a longtime ally in the Middle East.

Trump’s decision Friday to double tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminum could sink the nation’s struggling economy and drive President Recep Tayyip Erdogan into Russia’s arms. It could also threaten U.S. strategic interests including the military base in Incirlik, an important staging area in the fight against Islamist terrorism.

Trump Puts Turkey Alliance on the Line With Standoff Over Pastor

Erdogan pledged that the American economic actions wouldn’t influence Turkish actions in a New York Times op-ed published Friday, saying his country “established time and again that it will take care of its own business if the United States refuses to listen” and that Trump’s unilateral actions would only undermine American security interests.

“Before it is too late, Washington must give up the misguided notion that our relationship can be asymmetrical and come to terms with the fact that Turkey has alternatives,” Erdogan wrote. “Failure to reverse this trend of unilateralism and disrespect will require us to start looking for new friends and allies.

The potential implications have set off a debate inside Trump’s administration, according to an administration official familiar with the deliberations. Some fear the consequences of walking away from Turkey, while others say the country’s strategic importance has diminished and ignoring Erdogan’s behavior will only embolden him, said the official, who discussed the issue on condition of anonymity.

“The administration seems to be willing to accept a scenario in which Turkey -- as the economic crisis escalates and the nationalist rhetoric we’ve heard come out of Erdogan escalates -- that Turkey is no longer a strategic ally," said Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

Aaron Stein, a Middle East expert at the Atlantic Council, said Erdogan may have overestimated his value in Trump’s eyes.

U.S. access to the Incirlik “is important, but not nearly as important as the Turks think it is,” Stein said. He added that if Turkey were to retaliate by closing the military base, such a move could backfire because it would anger other NATO allies active in the region.

While relations between the two countries have deteriorated for years, they began to spiral downward in recent weeks over Turkey’s detention of a Christian evangelical pastor, Andrew Brunson, who’s facing espionage and terrorism allegations related to the failed 2016 coup. The minister’s plight has been a cause among religious conservatives, one of the U.S. president’s most loyal constituencies.

The detention comes on top of other issues, including Turkey’s long-running interest in purchasing Russia’s S-400 air defense system, jailing of US consulate employees and support for Islamists.

Erdogan meanwhile has fumed at the U.S.’s backing for Kurdish rebels in Syria and refusal to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish preacher living in Pennsylvania whom Erdogan blames for the failed coup.

“Although Pastor Brunson’s case is the most visible of bilateral irritants at the moment, tensions in the US-Turkey relationship are manifold and have been accumulating for years,” said Michael Singh, managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Erdogan’s government miscalculated last month when it put Brunson under house arrest instead of freeing him outright, according to an administration official who said the president felt personally betrayed. Another U.S. official described the mood at the time in Washington over Turkey as poisonous, saying the administration has shown itself not to be worried about destroying relationships.

“The power balance is asymmetric, totally in the U.S. favor,” Stein said. “There are no guard rails to escalation on the U.S. side, and that’s where the Turks have completely, completely messed up in their understanding of what’s going on in the U.S.”

Singh, who was also former senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush, said a break with Turkey will nonetheless damage U.S. interests.

“Turkey’s greatest value to the U.S. is not economic but strategic,” said Singh. “It is not only a NATO ally, but it occupies a vital geographic position. Without Turkish cooperation, U.S. goals in Syria, Iran, Russia, and even Europe become more difficult.”

Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, asked last week about the future of the relationship and Turkey’s continued membership in NATO, said that "Turkey is a NATO partner with whom the United States has every intention of continuing to work cooperatively." But that was before the latest round of talks with Turkey over the release of Brunson and others ended without resolution. “I don’t want to predict” how far the U.S. might go to achieve the release, Pompeo said at the time.

While Turkey has been bound to the U.S. by NATO, Trump has expressed frustration in recent months with the alliance and questioned its relevance.

"For an administration or a president that doesn’t give much value to NATO, the value of Turkey as a staunch NATO ally also has declined,” Kirkegaard said. “The Trump administration isn’t going to walk an extra mile to save an organization it doesn’t value.”

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