Relations between the US and Turkey are better, but still tense: QuickTake

Since relations between the US and Turkey fell to a low in August, the two countries have resolved a two-year confrontation with an American pastor detained in Turkey. However, more complex issues continue to divide NATO allies and threaten new crises. These include the fallout of a 2016 coup attempt against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's plans to buy a missile defense system from Russia, and the US alliance with a militia in Syria that considers Turkey an enemy. The two countries reaffirm the need to maintain their alliance, but the resulting tears have undermined confidence on both sides.

1. What does the coup attempt have to do with the US?

For Erdogan, the failed coup d'état remains a miraculous wound. And Washington's reluctance to hand over Fethullah Gulen, the Turkish cleric who lives in exile in Pennsylvania, accusing Erdogan of orchestrating the failed coup. American officials say Turkey's evidence against Gulen, who moved to the United States two decades ago and lives in a facility in the Pocono Mountains, is not enough to extradite him. Claiming that Gulens followers had created a "deep state" through the intrusion of security services, schools and courts, Erdogan initiated a clean-up of the civil service, costing some 130,000 people their jobs. Turkish officials also arrested American Andrew Brunson, a Protestant preacher, for participating in the fall attempt.

2. Why did this trigger a crisis?

While Turkish officials said the Brunson case is a legal process and not a political one, Erdogan raised the US suspicion that the pastor was being held as a bargaining chip when he suggested last year that Turkey could release him in exchange for Gülen. "Give a pastor, take a pastor," he said. With Brunson illegally arrested, the US pushed for the release of Turkey to impose sanctions on Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul and Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu. Turkey responded with measures against US Interior Minister Ryan Zinke and Homeland Security Minister Kirstjen Nielsen. After a Turkish court freed Brunson in October, both countries lifted their sanctions.

3. Are there any other signs of rapprochement?

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on November 5 that Turkey was one of eight countries temporarily imposing the new US sanctions that punish countries that buy Iranian oil. Erdogan said talks with the US on concerns over the activities of the Turkish state bank Halkbank are "positive." The Turkish and US forces began joint patrols in rural areas of the northwestern Syrian city of Manbij on 1 November. And on November 6, the US announced rewards for information that led to three senior members of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has been fighting for autonomy within Turkey for more than three decades. It was the first such US action since joining Turkey in 1997 as a terrorist organization.

4. What is the burden on the gang?

Apart from the dispute over Gulens extradition, the biggest problems are the unresolved matter of the Halkbank. Ankara is planning to buy a missile defense system from Russia, although the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Syrian disputes have met with sharp opposition. Turkey is fighting for the release of its citizen Mehmet Hakan Atilla, former head of Halkbank's international banking business, who was tried in a New York court earlier this year for contributing to a program to help Iran's evasion of US financial sanctions. Turkey accuses the case that the case relied on fake evidence made by supporters of Gülen.

5. So what if Turkey buys Russian missile defense purchases?

The Russian S-400 system is not compatible with NATO technology. This has fueled demand in the US to halt scheduled deliveries of F-35 fighters to Turkey, where parts of Lockheed Martin Co.'s aircraft will be built. The US fears that the Russian system could be used to gather information about the stealth capabilities of the F-35.

6. What are the divisions over Syria?

Under President Barack Obama, the US ruled that its trusted ally in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria was a Kurdish-led militia and supported it extensively. This angered Turkey, which sees the militia as a member of the PKK. Turkey called on Trump to reverse Obama's policy, but he doubled and decided to arm the Syrian Kurds directly. Turkish troops attacked the militia in Syria. At the end of October, Turkey bombarded the fighters near the northern Kurdish fortress of Kobani when the US expressed "great concern" over the safety of the US troops stationed in the region. The United States also said Turkey's military movement has slowed the campaign against the Islamic State, a claim denied by Erdogan spokesman Ibrahim Kalin.

7. Any other sore spots?

At least three other people detained in Turkey in connection with the 2016 coup attempt and ties to the PKK separatist Kurdish group have attracted US attention and fueled tensions. They include former NASA scientist Serkan Golge and two Turkish employees of US diplomatic missions, including Metin Topuz from the Consulate of Istanbul and Hamza Ulucay from the Consulate Adana. The US says they are innocent.

8. Is Turkey looking for allies elsewhere?

Relations between Turkey and Russia are warming, even though they supported the opposing sides in the Syrian civil war and shot down a Russian fighter plane supporting the Syrian government forces in 2015. As part of an agreement with Russia and its ally Iran, Turkey deployed troops in the northwestern province of Idlib, Syria, to create a demilitarized zone, and sought the support of France and Germany to find a political solution to the conflict.

9. What could Turkey keep in the orbit of the US?

Common interests have prevented disputes in the past from leading to a permanent break, and these common interests persist. Turkey relies on short-term foreign investment by Americans and others who take the lead from Washington. In the United States, there are few reliable allies between the Muslim countries of the Middle East, a region where Russia and Iran are on the rise. Trump promises a much tougher line against Iran and may not want to push Turkey too far into the opposing camp. Turkey has NATO's second largest army and houses the strategic air base Incirlik, which is used for operations against the Islamic State.

To contact the reporter on this story: Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara at shacaoglu@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Onur Ant at oant@bloomberg.net, Amy Teibel, Lisa Beyer

© 2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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