Turkey-US rift widens with sanctions against ministers

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shakes hands with Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu as he arrives at Anitkabir in Ankara on Thursday. (Reuters)
Updated 02 August 2018
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Turkey-US rift widens with sanctions against ministers

  • Turkey will refuse to make any concessions on judicial independence in the face of the Trump administration’s threats
  • The longer the Brunson situation remains unresolved the more likely that US-Turkish relations will remain strained and further deteriorate

ANKARA: Washington and Ankara are heading into increasingly turbulent waters as the NATO allies take unprecedented steps against each other.

On Wednesday, the US Treasury issued sanctions against Turkish officials, including Minister of Justice Abdulhamit Gul and Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, in retaliation for Turkey’s detention of American pastor Andrew Brunson, who was held for almost for two years before recently being placed under house arrest.
The US Treasury views Brunson’s arrest as a serious human rights abuse.
Assets and properties of the two Turkish officials under US jurisdiction will be blocked and US citizens will be forbidden from engaging in financial transactions with them.
The US has prepared a list of Turkish entities and individuals to target if Ankara refuses to release the pastor. The sanctions are based on the Global Magnitsky Act of 2016, which allows Washington to target individuals, companies or other entities involved in human rights abuses around the world.
On the same day, the US Senate overwhelmingly approved a defense policy bill which includes a halt to the sale of F-35 jets to Turkey until the Pentagon issues a report within three months. Ankara has been engaged in the F-35 program since 1999, while the Turkish defense industry has played an active role in the production of the aircraft.
However, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said Turkey will refuse to make any concessions on judicial independence in the face of the Trump administration’s threats.
As well as Brunson, NASA scientist Serkan Golge and three Turkish employees from the US mission in Turkey have also been detained over alleged links to terror organizations.
The US economic assaults are expected to continue with a hefty fine on state-run Turkish Halkbank for its role in evading US sanctions against Iran. The sanctions will severely damage the Turkish banking sector, according to some experts.
Following the announcement, Turkey’s lira already hit a record low of five against the dollar.
Experts believe that Ankara is likely to take counter-measures against Washington, possibly even seizing the assets of the US president and government leaders in Turkey, including Trump Tower in Istanbul.
As a second option, another attempt to contain the crisis through high-level meetings may also be on table.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to meet his Turkish counterpart shortly.
“We all know that there are serious flaws in Turkish justice system and its independence must be improved. We in Turkey work hard toward that goal and will be pleased to see constructive support in this regard,” Mehmet Ogutcu, a former Turkish diplomat and chairman of the Bosphorus Energy Club, told Arab News.
However, for Ogutcu, such an intervention from the US side is counterproductive and will harden Turkey’s resolve to guard its sovereign rights and national pride.
“Turkey, a powerful NATO ally, an OECD member and EU partner, cannot be treated like North Korea, Iran or Russia. The relations will benefit from a comprehensive overhaul of diplomatic, security and economic ties, as well as positive engagement rather than such treats and sanctions,” he said.
Jonathan Katz, a senior fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said that the detention of the pastor is merely one symptom of a deepening rift.
“If the Brunson case was an isolated one it would be significant, but given historic distrust between Washington and Ankara it is magnified tenfold,” he said.
“There is a strong belief across the political spectrum in Washington, not only in the Trump administration, that Brunson is being unfairly used as a pawn to achieve certain objectives of Erdogan.”
According to Katz, this feeds into a widely accepted narrative in Washington and the West that Turkey under Erdogan leadership has drifted toward authoritarianism, away from the West and NATO, and discarded democracy, human rights and rule of law.
“The longer the Brunson situation remains unresolved the more likely that US-Turkish relations will remain strained and further deteriorate. It will also make it more difficult to collectively address other challenges in the bilateral relationship, including policy toward Syria, Turkey’s relations with Russia and its purchase of S-400 missile system,” he said.
Experts also caution about a potential tit-for-tat response on sanctions between the two countries, which would further strain relations.
“Ankara could immediately deescalate this situation, including reversing US application of sanctions, by releasing Brunson and canceling its purchase of the Russian S-400 system,” Katz said.
A more comprehensive strategy was needed to rebuild trust and break the current impasse, he said.


A year after Daesh defeat, Iraq in throes of political crisis

Updated 19 min 27 sec ago
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A year after Daesh defeat, Iraq in throes of political crisis

  • Five months after Baghdad declared its win, the country held legislative elections that did not produce a clear governing coalition
  • The ongoing power struggle among various parties has stymied efforts by new premier Adel Abdel Mahdi, widely seen as a weak consensus candidate, to form a government

BAGHDAD: A year since Iraq announced “victory” over the Daesh group, the country finds itself in the throes of political and economic crises left unresolved during the long battle against militants.
Unified against the common menace of Daesh, Iraq’s political elites are now at loggerheads over the drawn-out formation of a cabinet as the threat of renewed popular protests looms.
Iraq is no stranger to instability. It fought an eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s, then a conflict over Kuwait followed by a crippling international embargo and the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
A sectarian war ensued, capped in 2014 by Daesh’s devastating sweep across a third of the country.
Backed by a US-led international coalition, Iraqi troops and paramilitary forces battled the militants for three years, until Baghdad finally declared it had won in December 2017.
After decades of nearly back-to-back wars, Iraq’s decision-makers are now forced to face deep-rooted dilemmas left festering for years.
“In Iraq you’ve seen many ‘missions accomplished’,” said Renad Mansour, senior fellow at Chatham House in London.
“But as usual, the much more challenging victory is the political victory — which has always been left for another day.”
Five months after Baghdad declared its win, the country held legislative elections that did not produce a clear governing coalition.
Then-prime minister Haider Al-Abadi failed to hold on to his position despite claiming credit for victory, as people turned to populist parties who tapped anger over corruption.
The ongoing power struggle among various parties has stymied efforts by new premier Adel Abdel Mahdi, widely seen as a weak consensus candidate, to form a government.

In October, Abdel Mahdi managed to fill 14 of the cabinet’s 22 posts, but repeated efforts to hold a parliamentary vote on the remaining eight, including the key interior and defense ministries, have failed.
“The distribution of power, the race to acquire as many government positions as possible under the guise of real competition between parties — that is at the root of the problem,” Iraqi political analyst Jassem Hanoun told AFP.
“Iraq is still living in a transition period, without political stability or a clear administrative vision for the country.”
As the process drags on, observers have wondered whether Abdel Mahdi could step down, further destabilising a country just getting back on its feet.
“Withdrawal is an option,” a source close to the government said, adding that Abdel Mahdi “has his resignation letter in his back pocket.”
“Only if the political situation gets significantly worse can I see him taking it out of his pocket and using it,” the source said.
But the thorny issues facing Iraq extend beyond the capital.
Much of the country remains in ruins after three years of ferocious fighting, including large swathes of one-time Daesh capital Mosul and the northern Sinjar region.
An international summit in Kuwait in February gathered around $30 billion in pledges for Iraq’s reconstruction — less than a third of what Baghdad hoped to receive.
More than 1.8 million Iraqis are still displaced, many languishing in camps, and 8 million require humanitarian aid, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council.
“If this is what ‘victory’ looks like, then there is little to celebrate for millions of Iraqis still haunted by the crimes of the IS and the long war to eliminate it,” said NRC’s head Jan Egeland.

Violence has dropped across Iraq, according to the United Nations, which recorded the lowest casualty figures in six years in November with 41 civilians killed.
But the threat of hit-and-run attacks lingers.
A recent study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies found that while the total number of Daesh attacks in Iraq had dropped in 2018, those against government targets had increased compared to 2017.
Observers are also worried that the bitter squabbles among Iraqi’s political forces could turn violent.
“Because of the divisions among the parties, anything is possible,” Hanoun said.
One scenario would be a conflict among the country’s competing Shiite Muslim factions, which he said would be a “disaster.”
But another major fault line divides Iraq’s entrenched politicians and an increasingly frustrated public.
Deadly protests in the summer of 2017 saw tens of thousands turn out over unemployment, a lack of public services, and accusations of corruption.
Rampant power cuts mean millions of Iraqis have just a few hours of state-provided electricity per day. The country is ranked the 12th most corrupt in the world, according to the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index.
Protest leaders have threatened a return to the streets if these issues, as well as the political stalemate, are not resolved.
“There’s certainly a conflict within the Shiite camp, but the biggest conflict will be between the people and the whole system,” said Mansour.
“Summertime will be a test for Abdel Mahdi.”