I have been stressing for some time the importance of repairing the strained relationship between Turkey and the United States. My argument is that we must reset before the situation hits rock bottom. The only way to accomplish that goal is for Washington to revise its unilateralist, interest-driven approach and start taking Turkey's national security into consideration.We understand that this change is indeed challenging. We also observe that the differences of opinion between Ankara and Washington are spreading to new areas, including the Eastern Mediterranean. Still, the main point is to stop tensions from evolving into a serious catastrophe and to find new areas of cooperation. At the same time, we must continue diplomatic negotiations.
Earlier this week, senior Turkish officials visited the U.S. capital to prevent further deterioration of bilateral relations. Treasury and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, Trade Minister Ruhsar Pekcan and Presidential Spokesman Ibrahim Kalın shared Turkey's perspective with their counterparts.
Albayrak's meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump was arguably the most significant of those contacts. At the White House, the Turkish finance minister shared President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's messages on the S-400 missile defense system and a range of other issues with his host.
That Albayrak's meeting with Trump went well demonstrates that leader-to-leader diplomacy remains the bastion of Turkey-U.S. relations. On the S-400s, Turkey urges Trump to use his power to override an attempt by Congress to target Ankara with the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) – just as he vetoed a bill to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led military operation in Yemen. The Turks expect the U.S. president to use his veto power for the third time to avoid a comprehensive crisis in bilateral relations. Yet, the U.S. government and Congress seem unwilling to hear out Turkey's legitimate concerns.
I was in Washington on the same days as the Turkish delegation to attend a panel discussion on the Syrian crisis hosted by the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA). Based on my meetings there, my sense is that the threat of CAATSA is under consideration across U.S. bureaucracy, and Trump must absolutely take an initiative to stop the S-400 issue from turning into a full-blown crisis.
Let's see if Trump will do for Turkey what he already did for Saudi Arabia. Will he block attempts to poison Turkey-U.S. relations through CAATSA or Turkey's removal from the F-35 program?
It seems that the S-400 issue will be the single greatest challenge that the Turkish-American alliance has encountered in recent years. Let us recall that this trend started back in 2013, when differences of opinion over the Syrian civil war were the driving factors behind worsening bilateral relations. First, Turkey and the United States competed over the fight against Daesh terrorists. Then came Washington's support for the People's Protection Units (YPG), the terrorist organization PKK's Syrian branch. Finally, the relationship took a hit due to Washington's actions – or lack thereof – regarding the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) and Halkbank.
Ironically, Syria now presents an opportunity for the two countries to repair their relations. An agreement on the safe zone could stop further deterioration. Of course, such a step would require all sides to listen to U.S. officials willing to acknowledge Washington's past mistakes rather than people like Brett McGurk and the rest of the Barack Obama holdovers. The words of Gen. James Jones, President Obama's national security adviser who currently serves as chairman of the American-Turkish Council, are a case in point: "Had a safe zone been set up in Syria after the violation of the red line, the refugee influx would have been prevented. Not taking that step was a strategic mistake."
Obama was wrong not to take Erdoğan's advice on the safe zone. Now Trump has an opportunity to withdraw American troops from Syria and implement that plan – and oversee the recovery of Turkey-U.S. relations.