The delegation headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onel, and comprising officials from the ministries of finance and justice, has started talks in Washington aimed at trying to overcome the differences between the two countries, which now run the risk of boiling over and causing irreversible damage to ties.
The fact that Ankara felt the need for such an emergency diplomatic intervention is proof in itself that it is aware of the gravity of the situation.
The Twitter message issued by the American Embassy in Ankara earlier this week underlining Washington’s continued support for its “friend and ally” Turkey, also shows – patronizing as the message may sound – that Washington is not willing to allow the current crisis to undermine ties either.
Despite such niceties, though, the problems that have brought matters to a head still have to be resolved, starting with the Washington’s demand that Pastor Andrew Brunson be released by Turkey.
The U.S. side, which openly says the charges of terrorism brought against Brunson are fabricated, appears very determined on this score, and is clearly not prepared to move on unless this happens.
Having insistently argued all along that Turkish courts are independent in their decisions, Ankara is now faced with the job of having to find some formula that will enable Brunson to be released and allowed to return to the U.S.
One has to also remember that Washington is also demanding the release of other American citizens, and U.S. consular staff, held in Turkey on charges similar to those levelled at Brunson.
Whatever formula is found for Brunson, it is unlikely to leave the Turkish side looking as if it has come out stronger from this episode.
In truth, Ankara has engineered itself into a situation where it has few choices.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signaled last week that he did not want a “lose-lose” situation with the U.S. The sides will work to try and avert that, but it appears that securing the kind of “win-win” situation Erdogan expects may not be possible.
The simple reason is that there is an asymmetrical imbalance in the capabilities of the two countries.
Take the “retaliatory sanctions” Erdogan announced against two U.S. government officials last week, after the U.S. Treasury slapped sanctions on Turkey’s ministers for justice and the interior over the continuing detention of Brunson.
The U.S. sanctions – although nothing more than a warning shot in actual fact – nevertheless shook the Turkish Lira and made the Istanbul stock exchange shiver to the extent that alarm bells started ringing in Ankara.
The same can hardly be said about the U.S. Dollar or the New York Stock exchange after Erdogan announced Turkey’s counter sanctions.
Putting restrictions on the use of Turkish bases by the U.S. military, which Erdogan’s support base is clamoring for, would be an effective step of course. But there is no indication whatsoever that Ankara is either prepared or willing to go down that path.
It knows that doing so would be the beginning of the end of Turkish-American ties as we have come to know them over the past five decades, which would have serious consequences for Turkey. There are even some level-headed supporters of Erdogan who are warning that Ankara will be the one that loses out in such an event.
Ankara can’t risk any further blows to Turkey’s economy either, even if the government and its supporters remain in denial over this. We already see how the economy is reacting to the current crisis with the U.S.
Economists are warning that matters will only get worse if differences are not resolved.
There is also the issue of Syria where Ankara and Washington are already at loggerheads over U.S. support for the Kurdish YPG group, which Turkey has listed as a terrorist organization.
The sides are also trying to find a way of reconciling their differences over this issue. If relations go from bad to worse, though, it is certain that the American side will close ranks with the YPG even more than it has done already.
Looking at the general picture, it does not require expertise to realize whose hand is weaker as the delegation headed by Sedat Onel tries to iron things out in Washington.
All of this begs two serious and interrelated questions.
How did Ankara allow matters to come to a head with Washington in this manner? Having done so, what does this say about the government’s competence with regarding to conducting a rational foreign policy?
It will be interesting to see how the Erdogan administration finds a way out of this maze with minimum damage to Turkey’s reputation, if indeed such a thing is possible at this stage.