Even after imposing sanctions on Turkey for procuring missile systems from Russia, both the US and the EU have been keen to ensure that tensions are reduced.
Turkey reacted strongly to the imposition of sanctions on December 14, 2020 by the US under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) for the purchase of S400 missile systems from Russia. Both Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu have made strong statements. The Turkish President stated that the US decision to impose sanctions was taken with a view toward slowing down the progress made by the country’s defense industry. Turkey had taken the first delivery of S400 Missiles in 2019 (US had offered Turkey Patriot missiles but had declined to give technology transfer rights after which Turkey stated that it was left with no option but to purchase the S400 from Russia).
The US had earlier removed Turkey from its F35 Joint Striker program. The US has also, on more than one occasions, stated that Turkey’s decision to accept S400 would also harm security cooperation within NATO. A White House statement last year said that the decision to acquire S400 missiles violates ‘… the commitment all NATO allies made to each other to move away from Russian systems.’
Reaction to the US Move
The US’ decision came as a surprise to many, since it has come right at the end of the Trump tenure. Moreover, outgoing US President Donald Trump and Turkey’s Erdoğan are known to share a strong personal rapport. After the declaration of the election results in November, Erdoğan had sent a message of thanks to Trump for the role he had played in furthering Turkey-US relations, going on to refer to their personal rapport. Erdoğan had mentioned in his letter:
“… I would like to sincerely thank you once again for your ever warm friendship and offer my most sincere wish for the peace and well-being of the people of the United States of America.”
After the initial reactions to the sanctions, both Turkey and US have tried to calm down tempers. Turkish Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu said that Istanbul was ready to work with the incoming Biden administration and address the thorny issues in the bilateral relationship. He said, “In 2021, we are prepared to lead our relations with the new administration in a healthier manner and we are prepared to take steps to overcome existing problems.”
In recent years, Turkey’s relations haven’t just deteriorated with the US — for a spate of reasons including US support for Kurdish fighters, US residence of a scholar, Muhammad Fethullah Gülen, who is supposed to have backed the coup attempt in 2016 — but even with EU member states over a myriad of foreign policy issues including Syria and Libya. Only recently, the EU imposed sanctions on Turkish companies for drilling of oil in Mediterranean waters claimed by Cyprus and Greece. While Greece was in favor of harsher sanctions, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Hungarian PM Boyko Borisov blocked such a move.
Importance of Ties with the West
In spite of all the aggressive posturing, Erdoğan realizes that it is important to have a reasonable relationship with the Western world. In this context, two developments are important; first Turkey’s overtures towards Israel and second, the signing of the Turkey-UK FTA on December 29, 2020 (UK is one of the few countries in the west, with which Istanbul shares good relations). Turkish President Erdoğan recently spoke in favor of better ties with Israel, saying that while there were differences over the Palestinian issue, ‘We would have liked to bring our ties to a better point’.
Watch Erdoğan react to US Sanctions:
Importantly, Istanbul also appointed an envoy to Israel after a period of two and a half years (Turkey had withdrawn its envoy to Israel in May 2018). This step was taken with an eye on the geopolitics of the Middle East (GCC countries have been moving closer to Israel in recent years, with UAE and Bahrain signing the Abraham Accord in September 2020, to normalize ties with Israel) but also as a message to the incoming Biden Administration that Turkey was keen to have a cordial relationship with the US. While the FTA is being viewed solely from the bilateral prism, and in the context of Britain it is also important for Turkey given that UK is one of the few western countries, with which Turkey shares a cordial relationship.
Taking into account Turkey’s Ties with Russia
While observers focus on Turkey’s growing proximity with Russia, they forget that there are a number of geo-political divergences. This includes Syria, Libya and even on the Armenia-Azerbaijan issue, Russia has however been guarded, and Putin has sought to underplay differences between both sides.
Both Turkey and the West realize that in spite of all their differences a nuanced approach is needed. Turkey is not just an important player in the Middle East but also an important bridge between the Middle East and the West, as well as an important member of NATO. A strong reiteration of this point is that even after imposing sanctions, both the US and the EU have been keen to cement their relations with Turkey and to ensure that tensions are reduced.