The U.S. is making a louder voice with Turkey when Trump quits

WASHINGTON – This is no longer limited by President Trump’s love for Turkey’s authoritarian leader, U.S. officials and Congress are using the running days of his presidency to be ready for sanctions and to sound a striking voice for a strategic but unreliable ally.

Turkey, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, has annoyed the administration almost from the beginning. This has done Mr Trump – and his admiration for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – in the same way as the actions of the Ankara government, which have abused human rights, imprisoned Americans and journalists, and confronted Syria with Libya. to the Caucasus in the eastern Mediterranean.

Reorienting American policy must also require President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. to carefully bring Turkey back into the embrace of the West and not squeeze it closer to Russia.

“President Trump has been personally defending Erdogan and Turkey for years,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat. According to him, the incoming Biden administration “will be an important control over Erdogan’s efforts to spread its influence at our expense, undermining our interests”.

“This is a small intersection for Erdogan,” Mr Van Hollen said in a recent interview. “You have to make a decision – will he be your loyal NATO ally, or will you do it alone in the region?”

Congress is preparing this week to approve economic sanctions against Turkey for buying Russian missile defense systems early in Mr Trump’s term, which could potentially expose NATO military equipment to Moscow. Mr Trump suspended sanctions last year after defense systems were shipped to Turkey.

According to the two people involved in the controversy, for the first time and after Ankara tested the system in the fall, White House officials informed Turkish diplomats that the Trump administration would not oppose congressional sanctions.

Instead, they said the sanctions were in part a warning to Egypt, India, Saudi Arabia and other nations that had expressed interest in buying Russian military equipment.

At last week’s meeting of NATO foreign ministers, Foreign Minister Mike Pompeo criticized Turkey on several fronts, according to a person briefed on his comments. His statements – Turkey’s defense purchases, the exploration of natural gas in the disputed waters of the eastern Mediterranean and the support of foreign forces in external conflicts such as Libya – showed that Mr Pompeo did not try to ease growing tensions between European allies and US lawmakers.

“We are concerned about some Turkish behavior,” Kay Bailey Hutchison, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, told reporters ahead of a meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels. “The idea of ​​placing a Russian-made missile defense system at the center of our alliance is not tied.”

The European Union is considering its own sanctions against Turkey as retaliation against separate disputes with Greece, Cyprus and Germany in a resolution that could be taken on Thursday, a European diplomat in Washington says.

According to a senior official in his government, Turkey as a whole feels increasingly isolated.

Last month’s U.S. Navy expedition base off the coast of Souda Bay on the Greek coast indicated that Turkey was no longer the most important U.S. ally in the eastern Mediterranean, the senior official said.

In the fall, the Abraham agreements mediated by the Trump government – promoting normalized relations between Israel and three Arab states, Bahrain, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates – used countries in the Middle East hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood. The Islamist movement is supported by Mr Erdogan.

The senior Turkish official also described that Mr Pompeo visited his rivals in Cyprus and Greece in the autumn and then went to Ankara with his wife instead of on a tour of Istanbul in November to meet with government leaders.

The expected sanctions will certainly hamper Turkey’s already tense economy and may force Mr Erdogan to withdraw from most foreign military missions. (One exception would be in neighboring Syria, where Turkey is fighting Islamic State militants and American-backed Kurdish fighters; Mr Erdogan considers both groups to be terrorists and is unlikely to retire.)

Experts warn that this could push Turkey into Russia’s arms if Mr Biden is not careful.

“Relations with Turkey will be an important, urgent issue for the Biden government,” said James F. Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and Iraq who retired last month as the State Department’s special envoy for Syrian policy and coalition. Islamic state.

“Given the size, location, economic and military strength of the country, and the pro-Western atmosphere of the population, if not its president, does it make sense to set Turkey aside or squeeze it into a Russian camp?” said Mr. Jeffrey.

He noted that Turkey and Russia are on opposite sides in the conflicts in Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh. It also remains a critical NATO ally in Iraq and Afghanistan and opposes Iran’s regional progress.

The senior Turkish official described Mr Erdogan’s interests as ultimately more in common with the West than with Russia. But he said how the Biden government will get into the debate on missile defense systems will be the first test.

It is far from certain that a compromise can be reached. But the Turkish official said Mr Biden’s advisers had indicated at low-level talks that they were open to considering compromises, as suggested, including convening a NATO task force to examine whether Russia could indeed infiltrate Western military systems through missile defense systems.

A spokesman for Mr Biden’s interim team did not want to comment.

The senior Turkish official also said Mr Biden’s advisers had made it clear that they would contact Turkey through traditional and technical diplomatic channels – and did not rely on the kind of spontaneous and direct lines of communication that signaled Trump and Mr.’s relationship. Erdogan.

That was good news for the Turks, the senior official said.

Julian E. Barnes contributed to the report.