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How Willing is Erdogan to Risk His Relationship with America?

By Nicholas Danforth

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Following the news that the United States would begin training a 30,000 person strong border security force in Kurdish-controlled Syrian territory, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a particularly pointed series of threats. Erdogan warned U.S. forces to remove their insignia from Kurdish fighters, lest Turkey be forced to “bury them together as well.”

With Washington deepening its commitment to the Syrian Democratic Forces, U.S. policymakers appear to have calculated that the fallout for the US-Turkish relationship will be manageable. Erdogan’s recent comments, set against the potential military operation and a host of other bilateral issues, raises the question of just how bad the fallout will be. Specifically, how willing is Erdogan to put Turkey’s relationship with the United States at risk in pursuit of his personal interests or ideological objectives at home and in the region. And how does this impact the amount of leverage Washington has over him?

Several upcoming events will help hint at the answer:

First, if Turkey moves ahead with its proposed attack on Kurdish forces in the territory of Afrin, the increased strain on the relationship will serve as something of a stress test. U.S. forces are not active in Afrin, and a Pentagon spokesman recently declared it to be outside the area of U.S. operations. Yet the Turkish press has already accused the United States of supplying weapons to Kurdish fighters in Afrin, and if the Turkish military takes heavy losses in the fighting there, Turkish politicians will be predisposed to blame the US. Adding to the rhetorical volatility would be the likely Western criticism of the operation, not only condemnation of the near certain civilian casualties, but also, quite possibly, a vocal minority of prominent Western figures openly cheering for the YPG. With anger on both sides running high, Ankara could take steps that would dramatically increase tensions. A number of potential steps, from finally closing Incirlik, as recently suggested by nationalist leader Meral Akşener, to launching artillery attacks in the vicinity of U.S. forces in other parts of Syria would further compound the impression, created by the attack on Afrin itself, that Erdogan was willing subordinate the US-Turkish alliance to more immediate objectives.

A less dramatic but, in the long run, equally important test will be how Turkey responds to the fines that are expected to be leveled against Halkbank, a government-run bank that was at the heart of last month’s sanctions-busting trial in New York. Though there have been reports that the bank has begun negotiations over settling the fine, the worst case scenario would still be that Turkey either refuses to pay or imposes some form of reciprocal fines against the United States as a face-saving measures, potentially setting the stage for further penalties. Most recently, Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Şimşek left just a bit of ambiguity in saying that the fine would be paid so long as it was “reasonable” and not “political.” Given that Ankara has repeatedly declared the entire case to be “political,” the potential for future confrontation over the Halkbank fine remains.

Ultimately, all of Washington’s leverage with Turkey hinges on the assumption that key decisions in Ankara are being made by rational actors with a pragmatic appreciation of their economic and military dependence on the West. To the extent that Erdogan is actually willing to contemplate a rash or revolutionary break from the West, however, Washington’s ability to exert pressure on him, or more broadly to save Turkey from itself, will be limited. For better or, quite possibly, worse the coming months will shed light on the question of whether, underneath the inflammatory rhetoric Ankara’s commitment to maintaining a functional relationship remains.

KEYWORDS: TAYYIP ERDOGAN, TURKEY, YPG