Emrah Atar: Let me start by asking a general question about relations between Turkey and the United States. How would you describe the US-Turkey relation in general? What do you think it is determining core of their relations, is it NATO, is it democracy, or what?
Almir Colan: The US-Turkey relationship today is taut and full of mistrust. The core of this mistrust is that Turkey wants to be a strong and independent nation, and that does not sit well with the US that got used to very subservient and obedient Turkey. In the US mind, Turkey should follow their instructions a be grateful to be part of the US-led world order, regardless of how tangible the benefits for Turkey are. US global strategy is therefore very much centred around what is the best for the US and that often clashes with what is best for the Turkish people and their neighbouring region.
Emrah Atar: Have the United States and Turkey been the perfect partners? If no, how did America’s relationship with Turkey fall apart?
Almir Colan: This relationship seems to be tested by US unilateral interference in the region in a way that undermines Turkish interests. From helping overthrow democratically elected government in Egypt (and propping military regime against the wishes of the people) to arming regional terror groups YPG/PKK (which threatens Turkish sovereignty) and ambiguous stand towards 15 July 2016 internal military coup – it is very difficult to imagine a less perfect relationship. I think it all started falling apart when Turkey decided to focus more on its one future and the region, instead of one-sided partnership arrangement with increasing unpredictable US.
Emrah Atar: As it is known, the main problems between Turkey and the United States in recent years have been the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, the problem of Palestine, the Armenian genocide allegations. What kind of relationship do they have on these specific issues and what awaits these two countries in the future?
Almir Colan: These are just the symptoms of a deeper problem where Turkey probably feel that they can not trust the US to protect Turkish interest and behave as partner and ally. The right partner would seriously consider requests, concerns and sensibilities of another partner and would not engage in acts that promote anti-Turkish sentiments. If matters between two states are not dealt in a sensible way that will push Turkey to consider other partners in the region that will be more responsive to their concerns and mutual needs.
Emrah Atar: In connection with these problems, the tension between the two countries was rising without falling. On October 8, 2017, the United States indefinitely suspended visa applications from Turkey following the arrest of Metin Topuz, a consular employee in Turkey. Later, Washington imposed economic and political sanctions on Turkey because of Pastor Andrew Brunson, a U.S. citizen who was under house arrest in Turkey, then released in 2018. With these sanctions, the Turkish lira fell in a way not seen before. How do you see the implementation and the future of Turkish lira in the coming years? Asking the right questions about the Turkish economy; would the economy eventually recover?
Almir Colan: One of the critical conditions for the continuing growth of the Turkish economy and the stability of its currency is domestic (and regional) security and then global trade relationships. Unfortunately, U.S. economic sanctions can send a signal that may affect investors and market confidence in short to medium term. This is a political tool that is often used by Trump administration to secure U.S. global and domestic interests. Nevertheless, the latest economic data gives me confidence that Turkey is doing very well by opening new trade relationships, improving its infrastructure, lowering inflation, lowering debt levels and diversifying its economy.
Emrah Atar: Moving forward, the S-400 crisis has risen between Turkey and the United States. How do you evaluate Turkey’s purchase of S-400 missile-defence system and removal from F-35 Aircraft Program? Furthermore, what would you like to say about CAATSA sanctions?
Almir Colan: Defence diversification is another realisation by Turkey that if they are to be an independent nation with its agenda, they cannot entirely outsource the protection of their sovereignty. For this reason, we see not only purchase of missile-defence systems but new aircraft, submarines as well as investment in the domestic defence industry. In terms of sanctions, that will be a matter of power dynamics and trade-offs between competing interests.
Emrah Atar: In recent months, everyone was talking that Turkey and the US are going to recover relations fully; however, the tension has risen again with Turkey’s desire to establish a safe-zone region with the operation in the north of Syria. First, what would you like to say about the existence of this operation? Could you please make an assessment of President Erdogan and President Trump during this process? Especially about the language that President Trump uses on Twitter and in the official letter.
Almir Colan: I think that personally President Erdogan and President Trump have a much better relationship than what is portrayed in the mainstream media. We should not forget that much of the what we consider mainstream is actually left-leaning media that considers both Presidents as authoritarian dictators who are not fit for office. In terms of Turkish military operation to secure safe-zone in Syria, this came about due to the two main reasons. First is Turkish insistence on securing against the formation of the terror state on its border, and second US failure to obtain any meaningful presence on the ground in Syria. The US tried with many groups and soon realised that they do not have nearly as much commitment and skin in the game as other power brokers – namely Russia and Turkey. In terms of how it all played out in the media and twitter, it was a typical Trump-like reality show that was design to score domestic points and save US face. Unfortunately, in the process, the whole thing (especially that infamous letter) came out as very offensive and insensitive towards Turkey and President Erdogan. Still, I think it was handled in a very mature and wise way by Turkish President.
Emrah Atar: Even though the US President Donald Trump was withdrawing his troops from the region to pave the path for the Turkish soldiers to carry out this operation, America has also announced that it will impose sanctions on Turkey due to its military operation in the northeast of Syria due to the criticism raised against President Trump. What does it mean to you that President Trump is engaging in this kind of rhetoric against a NATO ally?
Almir Colan: I think this was a possible trap for Turkey and it was designed to turn global attention and sanctions against the Turkish economy, rather than seeing it as the culmination of failures of US engagement in the region. While it was clear why Turkey had to act to secure its border, it was portrayed by anti-Turkish politicians and media as some sort of aggression that required global sanctions. Turkish restraint and engagement managed to deescalate tensions, but the whole idea that NATO allies will stick together and work for the benefit of each other was undermined. Furthermore, many other US partners in the region also felt that the situation could turn against them if US interests change. For this reason, it is not any more clear on which principle NATO alliance stands and what is it willing to sacrifice as an alliance to protect individual allies.
Emrah Atar: Democratic presidential candidates participated in a debate program emphasised that Turkey should be expelled from NATO. What do you think about this? Could Turkey be excluded from NATO?
Almir Colan: Excluding Turkey from NATO would be more harmful to NATO and Europe than Turkey. Turkish geography and the size of the military is what makes NATO very effective deterrent against other military threats. I see this as political pandering to growing anti-Turkish and also anti-Islamic sentiments in the US.
Emrah Atar: Do you think that the leaders of the world, on top of NATO countries, have understood Turkey’s concerns about this operation?
Almir Colan: I think the operation was an excuse for those who are looking at ways to influence regime change in Turkey. There was very little that anyone fair-minded and informed could misunderstand after all this was the Turkish border, not European or the US. However, this willful misunderstanding showed that some wish to see less ambitious Ankara which takes its marching orders from western capitals.
Emrah Atar: The United States, Russia, and Others. What is your approach to establishing better relations with other countries on many issues? Is this possible? Moreover, where Turkey finds itself in the future?
Almir Colan: I think that at the end each country is looking at its interest. That is the one constant factor that defines state relationships and conflicts. New alliances and partnerships are currently being forged, and they are seeking to secure favourable place in the global power hierarchy. I am afraid that relationships will be based on calculations and hard power rather than the wishful thinking of how would could or should be. Therefore Turkey finds itself racing to secure that same hard power to ensures its survival.
Emrah Atar: Finally, what would you like to say if you wish to make a general assessment on these topics or any related issues?
Almir Colan: Power is the team sport, and unfortunately, Turkey has been alone for most of their recent journey. Some favourable treatment by Qatar is offset by Gulf countries unfavourable treatment. Russia is playing to divide NATO alliance further, but it would be an error to conclude that President Putin wants a powerful Turkey. In the final analysis, no regional power wants a powerful Turkey, and all would benefit from the weak one. For this reason, Turkey must balance relationships and play them off against each other so to secure the best outcome for itself. This will be a long game. Still, just as many political commentators ignored ordinary silent voters in US, UK and Australia – I think many are ignoring rising concerns and anger by ordinary silent Muslim voters who are looking for independent and strong leadership from their statesman.
For this reason, other countries should factor this in their calculation. If we want to establish genuine and lasting prosperity for all states, then negotiation has to be fair, principled and win/win for both sides. However, I would not count on reason to prevail.