Sharpening disputes between the propertied rulers in the U.S. and Turkey over their conflicting economic, political and military interests in Syria and more broadly in the region lie behind the current trade sanctions being imposed back and forth between the two capitalist powers.
The escalating dispute takes place as the “world order” put together by the U.S. rulers after they emerged as top dog at the end of the second imperialist world war is coming apart. And at the same time the institutions and alliances cobbled together by Washington’s rivals — like the EU — are being torn asunder.
As the Syrian civil war winds down, Washington has moved to work more closely with the rulers in Israel, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies, and Egypt to target the Iranian regime and its Hezbollah ally. Ankara is in a bloc with Moscow and Tehran enforcing their separate interests in Syria. As part of this alliance, the Turkish rulers control a “de-escalation zone” in Idlib and parts of Latakia, Hama and Aleppo, where opponents of the Bashar al-Assad regime have been increasingly centered.
At the same time, Turkey remains a member of U.S.-dominated NATO.
Washington froze the assets of two Turkish government ministers Aug. 1 after Ankara refused to release U.S. evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson. Turkish authorities imprisoned Brunson in 2016, claiming he aided a failed coup against the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and backs Kurds fighting for their national rights. They are attempting to use Brunson as trade bait to get Washington to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a former ally of Erdogan who lives in exile in the U.S. Ankara accuses him of being behind the 2016 coup attempt.
In response to Washington’s sanctions, the Turkish government retaliated with their own protectionist measures. The U.S. administration then doubled tariffs on steel and aluminum sold in the U.S. by Turkish bosses. Ankara imposed its own punitive duties on goods traded by U.S. companies in Turkey.
But it’s not an equal exchange between Washington and the Erdogan government. The U.S. rulers sit atop a far larger and more robust capitalist economy than the capitalist class in Turkey. As Washington imposed its sanctions there, the lira, the Turkish currency, nosedived, hitting working people the hardest.
A decadeslong ally of Washington
For decades the Turkish rulers have joined Washington in the bloody imperialist conflicts it waged around the world. They sent over 20,000 Turkish troops to fight in Washington’s 1950-53 Korean War and thousands joined the U.S. war in Afghanistan after Sept. 11, 2001. During the 1991 Iraq war, the Turkish government enforced the anti-Iraq blockade, opened its airfields to U.S. bombers, and mobilized troops along its border with Iraq.
The Turkish rulers turned over a hunk of their Incirlik Air Base for the exclusive use of the U.S. Air Force, including the stationing of dozens of B61 nuclear bombs there. Since 2015 the Pentagon has used the base for airstrikes against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
In exchange, the Turkish rulers have sought military aid, loans from and trade with the U.S. capitalists, and Washington’s backing for the regime’s efforts to crush the struggle of Turkey’s oppressed Kurdish population for a homeland.
The roots of today’s clashes between Washington and Ankara lie in their divergent interests in the bloody aftermath of Syria’s civil war.
As the Assad government lost control of many parts of the country, and in the absence of any working-class leadership, reactionary Islamic State seized control in parts of Syria and Iraq, inflicting greater misery on working people.
Unwilling to deploy U.S. troops on the ground, Washington relied on the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Syrian Democratic Forces, which the YPG led, to do most of the fighting. With the aid of U.S. air power, they ousted Islamic State. As a result, the SDF consolidated control over an autonomous area east of the Euphrates River covering some 25 percent of Syria, including the Kurdish region that lies on the border with Turkey. Washington stations 2,000 troops there today.
Erdogan charges that Washington is protecting the YPG, who he says are allied with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey. The Turkish government has waged a decadeslong war against the Kurds’ fight for independence there. The Turkish army invaded the YPG-held province of Afrin, in northwest Syria, earlier this year, driving them out. Erdogan repeated Aug. 18 his often-made threat to drive the YPG away from the border in Kurdish northeastern Syria.
Amid these conflicts the Turkish rulers have developed closer relations with Moscow. The Turkish government says it will deploy a Russian-made S-400 missile defense system next year. In response, Washington withheld the delivery of F-35 jet fighters Turkey had ordered, saying the Russian equipment could enable Moscow to pry out the jet’s “top-secret” systems.
In an op-ed in the Aug. 10 New York Times, Erdogan said that if the U.S. government didn’t drop the sanctions and treat Turkey’s demands seriously, he would find “new friends and allies.”
“Turkey has established time and again that it will take care of its own business if the United States refuses to listen,” he said.
But the White House’s course isn’t aimed at breaking with Ankara. As it has done elsewhere, the administration seeks to utilize threats and punishing sanctions to force the Turkish rulers into negotiations where Washington gets what it wants.
The White House rejected Ankara’s offer to release Brunson in exchange for backing off threatened sanctions against the Turkish government’s Halkbank. Earlier this year a U.S. court convicted a Halkbank executive of breaching U.S. sanctions on Iran.
The impact of Washington’s sanctions has fueled the decline in the Turkish lira, stoking inflation. The cost of food is rising at a rate of 20 percent this year.
Rising prices fall hardest on working people there, who also face a widespread government crackdown on political rights. These intensified following Erdogan’s stepped-up military offensive against the Kurds in 2015 and his consolidation of sweeping executive powers in the wake of the 2016 failed coup attempt.
Ruling by decree, he has shut newspapers that express even a hint of opposition, purged hundreds of thousands from universities and other government jobs, and imprisoned some 80,000 people.
“Workers have no stake in backing the U.S. government — that serves the bosses here against working people — in its wars in the Middle East or its trade conflicts with the Turkish rulers,” Osborne Hart, Socialist Workers Party candidate for U.S. Senate from Pennsylvania, said Aug. 20. “The SWP demands the immediate lifting of all duties and sanctions that Washington has imposed. We stand with working people in Turkey who confront the assaults of the Erdogan regime. U.S. troops, planes and bombs out of the Middle East!”