Senate brakes on Trump do not signal gains for Turkey

Just before his departure for the late-November G20 meeting in Argentina, Trump received a rebuke from the U.S. Senate regarding his response to the murder of Washington Post journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi. Venting their frustration with Trump’s blasé comments on the involvement of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the murder, and with the failure of CIA Director Gina Haspel to join Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary James Mattis in briefing senators, 14 Senate Republicans joined Democratic senators to advance a resolution to withhold the delivery of defence articles to Saudi Arabia.

This rebuke of Trump’s conduct of foreign policy only hours before he was to meet leaders of the leading economic powers of the world was a strong reminder that as powerful as a U.S. president might appear, his authority is limited, at times by Congress, at times by the courts, and at times by the electorate. Not by chance did the vote occur hours before Trump would meet leaders from countries, such as China, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, who give little heed to the legislature, judiciary, or in some cases, the voters in their decision-making.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan should not read in this rebuke a dramatic shift by the U.S. Senate away from Saudi Arabia and a movement to better relations with Turkey. The purpose of the Senate resolution is not to discover the truth of whether Prince Mohammed was involved or not in the murder, but rather to forestall similar extraterritorial killings by Saudi Arabia or others. The Senate wishes to send a clear message that the United States expects its friends and partners to adhere to minimum standards of decency in the conduct of their affairs or risk losing U.S. support, even by a close and needed partner such as Saudi Arabia.

Erdoğan and his advisors should keep in mind that many senators who voted to advance this resolution rebuking Trump are those opposed to the delivery of F35s advanced fighter jets to Turkey – some even call for a cut-off of the transfer of any defence items to Turkey. Their willingness to rebuke Trump regarding the Khashoggi affair is a clear signal of their independence, to include a willingness to block the transfer of F35s or other military hardware to Turkey given Turkish cooperation with Russia in Syria and its purchase of S-400 air defence missiles system from Russia.

Regardless of U.S. senators’ appreciation for Turkey’s efforts to bring to light the truth of what happened to Khashoggi, and to determine who at the most senior levels of the Saudi government knew, condoned, or ordered the killing, the same senators voting to rebuke Trump for having downplayed Saudi leadership’s involvement can be counted on to oppose efforts by Mattis and Pompeo to downplay the serious contentious issues facing Turkish-U.S. relations. The attitude and comments of Senator Lindsey Graham on the Armed Services Committee regarding arms transfers to Turkey will be most instructive on the likelihood of a cut-off of defence support.  

The recent visit to the United States of Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu did not seem to produce any movement on the request to extradite U.S.-based Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen, accused with orchestrating the July 2016 failed coup, nor of his 83 other alleged coup plotters. Very little has been said by either the Turkish Foreign Ministry or the U.S. State Department on the fruits of the meetings Çavuşoğlu held with Pompeo and U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton. That reticence indicates that little if any progress was made in addressing the many contentious issues between the two NATO allies.  

It is worth noting that Britain last week denied extradition requests for Akin Ipek and several other Turks living there and wanted on charges of membership of the Gülen movement and involvement in the coup. While the British verdict may not be predictive of the U.S. response to an extradition request from Turkey, the similarities in the legal systems in London and Washington and the independence of the judiciaries in both countries do not bode well for Turkey’s attempt to extradite Gülenists from the United States.  

Erdoğan’s demands for the extradition of Khashoggi’s killers to face justice in the country in which they committed their crimes deserve a positive response, for unlike extradition requests for Gülenists, there is firm evidence of their crime and their participation in it. But there is even less likelihood that the Saudi government will extradite 15 Saudi citizens to face justice in Turkey than the United States will extradite U.S. Legal Permanent Resident Gülen. In the Saudi case, it is the lack of integrity in the kingdom’s system of justice; in the U.S. case, it is the lack of integrity in Turkey’s system of justice.  

On Tuesday, CIA Director Haspel, whose official career timeline indicates she knows Turkish (which implies she served in Turkey at one time) will brief the Senate Committees on Intelligence and Armed Services. The demand from Senators that Haspel brief them is unsurprising given her travel to Turkey to meet her counterparts soon after the murder of Khashoggi. These closed door, classified briefings will go a long way to satisfy the senators’ demands that they be kept informed about what the U.S. has learned, what it knows, what it suspects, and what it has deduced from the information gathered from numerous sources.

What will not be presented to the senators is absolute proof of the level of involvement of Prince Mohammed in the assassination of a troublesome journalist. Administration officials like Bolton have previewed this assessment already. Thus, after these briefings, the Trump administration will continue to assert that rogue elements of the Saudi government murdered Khashoggi, but that Prince Mohammed was not responsible. The administration might even go so far as to say that these rogue elements thought they were acting on the wishes of Prince Mohammed. But it is clear the Trump administration has no intention of attempting to undermine the authority of Prince Mohammed or reduce support for the man it sees as a reliable partner in the fight against Iranian efforts for regional hegemony and radical Islamist terrorism.

Erdoğan has gained as much politically from the Khashoggi case as possible, but now that heinous crime is becoming a deeply regretted tragedy in the past, not a current cause for a strong response. Soon, U.S. senators will return their gaze to Turkey’s poor human rights record, its cozying up to Russia, its supportive attitude towards Iran, its continued detention of dual U.S.-Turkish nationals and Turkish employees of the U.S. diplomatic mission, its unjust arrest and imprisonment, dismissal, or harassment of thousands on suspicion of even the smallest of alleged connection to the coup attempt, its sabre-rattling against Cyprus over eastern Mediterranean hydrocarbon exploration, and its continued animosity towards the United States’ closest ally in the Middle East, Israel. Rough seas are ahead for Turkish-U.S. relations, smooth sailing, if it exists, is far over the horizon, out of view from our present location.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.