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US takes tougher tone on Turkey as Trump steps out

WASHINGTON – No longer held back by President Trump’s affection for the authoritarian Turkish leader, US officials and Congress are using the final days of his presidency to prepare for sanctions and set a strident tone on the strategic but unreliable ally .

Turkey, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, has upset the administration almost since its inception. It was as much the doing of Mr. Trump – and his admiration for its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan – as of the actions of the Ankara government, which violated human rights, imprisoned Americans and journalists and ‘is engaged in clashes from Syria to Libya. from the Caucasus to the Eastern Mediterranean Sea.

The reorientation of US policy will also require President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. to carefully bring Turkey back into the West’s embrace and avoid pushing it closer to Russia.

“For years, President Trump has personally protected Erdogan and Turkey,” said Senator Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland. He said the new Biden administration “will be an important check on Erdogan’s efforts to expand his influence at our expense, in a way that undermines our interests.”

“It’s a bit of a crossroads for Erdogan,” Van Hollen said in a recent interview. “He’s going to have to make a decision – is he going to be NATO’s staunch ally, or is he going to go it alone in the region?”

Congress is preparing this week to approve economic sanctions against Turkey for the purchase of Russian missile defense systems at the start of Mr. Trump’s tenure, potentially exposing NATO’s military technology in Moscow. Mr Trump suspended sanctions last year after delivering defense systems to Turkey.

For the first time, and after Ankara tested the system this fall, White House officials informed Turkish diplomats that the Trump administration would not oppose congressional sanctions, according to two people involved in the talks. .

Instead, they said, the sanctions are in part aimed at warning Egypt, India, Saudi Arabia and other countries that have expressed interest in purchasing Russian military equipment.

At a meeting of foreign ministers of NATO countries last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticized Turkey on several fronts, according to a person briefed on his remarks. His statements – against Turkey’s defense purchases, his exploration of natural gas in the disputed waters of the eastern Mediterranean, and his support for foreign forces in external conflicts like Libya – showed that Mr Pompeo had grown weary of ‘try to temper the growing tensions between European allies. and US lawmakers.

“We are concerned about some of the Turkish behavior,” Kay Bailey Hutchison, the US ambassador to NATO, told reporters ahead of the foreign ministers meeting in Brussels. “The idea that you could put a Russian-made missile defense system in the middle of our alliance is forbidden.”

The European Union is evaluating its own sanctions against Turkey in retaliation for separate disputes with Greece, Cyprus and Germany in a decision that could come as early as Thursday, according to a European diplomat in Washington.

Overall, Turkey is feeling increasingly isolated, according to a senior government official.

The installation last month of a US Navy expeditionary ship in Souda Bay off the coast of Greece indicated that Turkey was no longer the main US ally in the eastern Mediterranean, the senior official said. .

The Abraham Accords brokered this fall by the Trump administration – promoting normalized relations between Israel and three Arab states, Bahrain, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates – have drawn countries in the Middle East hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood. The Islamist movement is supported by Mr. Erdogan.

The senior Turkish official also described feeling snubbed by Mr Pompeo’s visits this fall to rivals in Cyprus and Greece, and then by his tour of Istanbul with his wife in November instead of going to Ankara for meet with government officials.

The expected sanctions are sure to hammer Turkey’s already strained economy and could force Erdogan to withdraw from most of his military missions abroad. (An exception would be in neighboring Syria, where Turkey is fighting ISIS militants and US-backed Kurdish fighters; Mr Erdogan considers both groups to be terrorists and it is unlikely that they withdraw.)

Experts warn that could push Turkey into Russia’s arms if Mr Biden is not careful.

“Relations with Turkey will be a major and urgent issue for the Biden administration,” said James F. Jeffrey, former US ambassador to Turkey and Iraq who retired last month as the department’s special envoy. State for Syrian Policy and the Coalition to Defeat the Islamic State.

“Given the size, location, economic and military might of the country and the pro-Western sentiments of the people – if not of its president – does it make sense to sideline Turkey? or push it into the Russian camp? ” Said Mr. Jeffrey.

He noted that Turkey and Russia were opposite sides in the ongoing conflicts in Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh. He also remains a key NATO ally in Iraq and Afghanistan, and opposes Iran’s regional advances.

The senior Turkish official described Erdogan’s interests as ultimately having more in common with the West than with Russia. But, he said, the way the Biden administration approaches the dispute over missile defense systems will be a first test.

It is far from certain that a compromise can be found. But the Turkish official said Biden’s advisers had indicated in low-level talks that they were ready to consider compromises as proposed, including the convening of a task force of the NATO to examine whether Russia could effectively penetrate Western military systems through missile defense systems.

A spokesperson for Mr. Biden’s transition team declined to comment.

The senior Turkish official also said that Biden’s advisers have made it clear that they will engage with Turkey through traditional and technical diplomatic channels – and not rely on the kind of spontaneous and direct lines of communication. that marked the relationship between Mr. Trump and Mr. Erdogan.

It was good news for the Turks, the senior official said.

Julian E. Barnes contributed reporting.

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