Bolton’s exit unlikely to save Turkish-US relations
US President Donald Trump on Tuesday made it clear in a tweet that he had fired his National Security Adviser John Bolton amid disagreements with his hawkish aide over how to cope with various foreign policy challenges. It was not Trump’s most surprising tweet since he became the first American president to announce the country’s domestic and foreign policy decisions via social media. However, Bolton’s expulsion was unexpected.
The 70-year-old, who remained in his post for 520 days, was Trump’s third national security adviser. He was the chief architect of the White House’s strident stance against Iran and was an advocate of a tougher approach on Russia and even Turkey. Needless to say, Ankara was one of the capitals that had several reasons to be pleased by Bolton’s departure.
Bolton was one of the top figures who frequently stepped into the crises in the Turkish-US relationship. This was one of the most important subjects that kept Trump and Bolton at odds. He was part of the camp that defended imposing harsh sanctions on Turkey as part of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), along with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, due to Ankara’s purchase of the S-400 air defense system from Russia.
This was not the only matter that bothered Bolton. He also scrabbled to maintain US support for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northeastern Syria, despite NATO ally Turkey’s clear stance and concerns that it supports the outlawed terrorist organization the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Bolton angered Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with his strong calls for the protection of US-allied Kurdish fighters that were targeted by Ankara as a condition for the planned American withdrawal. Because of this, Erdogan even refused to meet Bolton during his visit to Turkey earlier this year. Thus, Bolton left without meeting Erdogan, who then publicly called earlier comments the top Trump aide had made about Turkey’s role in neighboring Syria a “serious mistake.” Erdogan and his team were frustrated over Bolton’s insistence that US forces would remain in Syria until his country agreed not to attack the Kurdish forces that fought Daesh alongside American troops.
Needless to say, the problems between Ankara and Washington are more structural than personal.
Hours before Bolton’s arrival, Erdogan had even published an op-ed in The New York Times insisting his government had “no argument with the Syrian Kurds,” although he underlined his belief that the YPG is a “terrorist” group that could have no political role in Syria’s future. Thus, Bolton’s visit to Ankara, which was supposed to be a turning point in Syria’s future and for Turkish-US relations, turned into a diplomatic catastrophe.
Not only was no progress made in Turkish-American relations, but it also led to increased suspicions in Ankara regarding US intentions toward the YPG and the future Syrian road map. Sources close to the White House told Turkish media outlets that Trump severely nagged Bolton over Turkey because the latter had acted with vengeance in the aftermath of his Ankara visit.
When it comes to US relations with Turkey in the post-Bolton era, Ankara does not expect the situation to suddenly improve. Needless to say, the problems between Ankara and Washington are more structural than personal. Turkish and American military delegations recently paid a visit to the joint operations center in the Akcakale district of southeastern Turkey’s Sanliurfa Province as part of an ongoing effort to establish a safe zone in northern Syria. Now that the US-Turkey cooperation has intensified with regard to the safe zone, there is a need for the two sides to develop a new framework for Syria and avoid any possible crises that may occur with regards to these structural problems between them.
The lack of mutual trust that has built up in recent years is not a secret. It has become a daily routine for the leaders of the two sides to declare their open mistrust. This mistrust will obviously not disappear in a single day, but it can dwindle if mutual efforts are made, particularly with the absence of hawkish figures in the decision-making process on both sides.
It would not be wrong to say that Bolton’s departure was good news for Ankara. However, there is a famous Turkish proverb that says: “May the coming one not make us search for the days of the outgoing.” This is a version of the well-known worldwide saying: “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.”
- Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz