Tensions between Ankara and Washington have flared up with the US warning Turkey about the export to Russia of chemicals, microchips and other products that can be used in Moscow's war effort in Ukraine and Turkish interior minister Suleyman Soylu launching an attack on the American ambassador to his country, saying: "Take your dirty hands off of Turkey. I’m being very clear. I very well know how you would like to create strife in Turkey. Take your grinning face off from Turkey."
Turkey’s parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for May 14 are fast approaching—angry rhetoric from the Erdogan regime, designed to nationalistically rouse its core vote, is no surprise. Nor are angry interventions from US politicians who dislike the unreliability of Turkey as a Nato ally, but at the same time stop short of anything that could irretrievably wreck relations with a country crucially located at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
Nevertheless, sparks are flying.
Brian Nelson, the US Treasury Department's top sanctions official, visited Turkish government and private sector officials on February 2 to urge more cooperation in disrupting the flow of goods that Russia can put to use in persisting with its war on the Ukrainians.
In a speech to bankers, reported by Reuters, Nelson said a pronounced year-long rise in exports to Russia left Turkish entities "particularly vulnerable to reputational and sanctions risks", or lost access to G7 markets.
They should, he said, "take extra precaution to avoid transactions related to potential dual-use technology transfers that could be used by the Russian military-industrial complex".
"There is no surprise ... that Russia is actively looking to leverage the historic economic ties it has in Turkey," a senior US official, who requested anonymity, told Reuters, adding: "The question is what is the Turkish response going to be."
In separate talks with Turkish firms, Nelson "urgently" flagged the way Russia is believed to be dodging Western controls to re-supply plastics, rubber and semi-conductors found in exported goods and used by the military, the official was also quoted as saying.
As reported at the end of last week, US officials are, meanwhile, tightening another sanctions noose that could leave Russian and Belarusian airlines flying US and European-made aircraft to Turkish airports without ground services.
Word of this move spread at the same time as interior minister Soylu started hitting out at Western countries for issuing security alerts about potential terrorist attacks in Turkey, saying these nations were waging “psychological warfare” on Turkey with the aim of wrecking the post-covid pandemic recovery of its tourism industry. A massive surge in Russian tourists has been a big part of the industry’s improved fortunes.
Whether Soylu—a known ardent critic of the US, whom he blames for the 2016 attempted coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan—had Nelson’s trip to Turkey in mind as he let loose his latest invective is not known, but he was unsparing as he railed against US Ambassador to Ankara Jeffry Flake, saying during an address made at a ministerial event in Antalya: “Every US ambassador who arrives in Turkey is hurrying to find out how to make a coup possible in Turkey”.
“I address the US ambassador from here. I know the journalists you made write articles,” he added.
As Turkey continues to threaten an effective veto against Sweden’s bid to join Nato—protesting, among other things, that Stockholm is not doing enough to extradite Kurdish and Gulenist “terrorists” to Ankara or stop far-right activists from mounting protests in which the Qur’an holy book is burned—another growing difficulty in Turkish-US relations is Turkey’s request to the US to acquire F-16 fighter jet aircraft.
A group of bipartisan US senators is proposing that any such sale should be tied to Turkey’s openness to accepting Sweden, and Finland, into Nato.
On February 2, Democrat Senator Jeanne Sheheen and Republican Senator Thom Tillis, who are co-chairs of the Senate Nato Observer Group, drafted a letter to President Joe Biden saying that “Congress cannot consider future support for Türkiye, including the sale of F-16 fighter jets, until Türkiye completes ratification of the accession protocols [for Sweden and Finland].” This letter was followed by 25 colleagues supporting this decision.
US Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland last week gave assurances to Congress that the Biden administration has made it clear to Turkey that if it does not budge on the Nato expansion then F-16 upgrades will not happen nor will any additional sales of F-16 fighter jets.
“We have made the same point to our Turkish allies … that we need this Congress’s support moving forward for the security enhancements that we think that they need, as allies, F16s, some of them [aircraft] are old, but that this Congress is likely to look far more favourably on that after ratification,” said Nulan.
With the Nato expansion dispute dragging on, more and more voices in Western media opposed to Turkey’s strongman, Erdogan, are starting to make themselves heard.
Columnist for The Observer Simon Tisdall on February 5 attacked Erdogan under the heading: Turkey’s two-faced ‘sultan’ is no friend of the west. It’s time to play hardball.”
The BBC, looking at issues such as Turkey’s acute cost of living crisis, reported on February 5: “There is a lot at stake in the upcoming elections, with opposition figures arguing that it will be a choice between increasing autocracy or democracy.”