Turkey's president threatened a major blow to the US — but Trump looks to have called his bluff

  • Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been threatening to leave NATO and the West behind for a long time, but he really doesn’t have other good options.
  • Turkey engages in several behaviours that the rest of NATO finds unhelpful or downright toxic.
  • US President Donald Trump’s sanctions on Turkey have tanked its economy – but instead of making good on the threats to walk, Turkey is holding on for dear life.
  • Turkey’s economy has been poorly managed and relies on huge influxes of cash, which other potential allies like Russia or Iran just can’t provide.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, now feuding with his NATO ally US President Donald Trump, wrote an op-ed article in The New York Times on Friday painting his country as the victim of bullying from the US that could result in Ankara “looking for new friends and allies.”

Erdogan’s plea for US concessions came after the Turkish lira tanked sharply, bringing markets in Europe and Asia down with it.

Turkey’s economic woes are partly caused by a dispute over the fate of Andrew Brunson, an American pastor whose release Trump reportedly lobbied unsuccessfully for, prompting US sanctions that are contributing to the crisis.

Turkey has cosy relations with Russia and Iran, and Erdogan’s suggestion that Ankara could find “new friends” seems tailor-made to bring fear to European and North American capitals.

But according to Jonathan Eyal, the international director of the Royal United Services Institute, Turkey has long been looking for other friends and allies, and that’s part of the problem.

“Turkey has no intention of respecting the American sanctions on Iran,” Eyal told Business Insider. “It has also said it respects none of the American priorities in Syria. It has offered to buy Russian missiles and other equipment.”

He added: “At every count and on every part, it’s gone against not only the US interests, but the interests of the Western alliance.”

Turkey’s on-again, off-again proposal to buy Russian missile defences, for example, shows how the country has frequently courted over-the-line behaviour much to the anger of NATO.

If Turkey were to buy Russian missile defences, Russia would get a window into NATO’s first line of defence. With the US’s trillion-dollar F-35 stealth jet coming online specifically as an effort to defeat Russian defences in the case of war, this represents a hard red line, and Congress has acted accordingly by banning the sale of F-35s to Turkey.

Erdogan’s back is against the wall

If Erdogan were to follow through on his threat to leave NATO, he would open a gaping hole in the alliance and possibly give Russia yet another strategic inroad to influence Europe. But it would most likely only further isolate Ankara from the prosperous West.

“When the Turkish lira collapsed, so did the Russian ruble,” Eyal said, as Russia has invested heavily in Turkey. “If Erdogan wants to shake hands as friends in poverty with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, he’s welcome to do it.”

Trump’s sanctions on Turkey alone almost certainly didn’t tank the lira, as sanctions rarely have so profound an effect – instead, it’s Turkey’s mismanaged economy that relies on huge influxes of outside cash as inflation rises and Erdogan resists combating it with higher interest rates because he ideologically opposes it.

Possible other friends for Turkey, like Russia and Iran, just don’t have the cash to bail out Ankara. China might, but it would insist on its own terms, which a fiercely independent Erdogan might not accept.

Empty NATO threats

Even Russia doesn’t believe Erdogan’s veiled threat to leave NATO.

“We’re not building illusions along with these relations,” Frants Klintsevich, a member of the defence and security committee in Russia’s upper house of parliament, said of Russia’s recent closeness to Turkey, according to Bloomberg.

Jim Townsend, a NATO expert at the Center for a New American Security, told Business Insider: “Turkey will always remain in NATO. Turkey gains nothing by leaving NATO. They can leave NATO if they want, but they’re not going to.”

As Turkey is not a member of the European Union, its only real input to Europe’s security posture comes from its participation in NATO, Townsend said. Meanwhile, Turkey conducts most of its trade with Europe.

Without a credible source of alternative military or financial backing, Turkey is now faced with a binary choice, according to Eyal.

“The only way this could be resolved now is either the US is going to climb down and accept some sort of deal, or Erdogan will have to lose face, big time,” he said.

But with the US economy doing well and Turkey’s economy and prospects quickly tanking, Erdogan has little room to manoeuvre. He has plenty of reason to wish for mercy from the US, but little reason to expect it unless it falls in line with the US’s calls to release Brunson and drop the Russian missiles.

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