In an exchange that warmed the hearts of all Greeks and Greek Cypriots everywhere and was reported as front-page news, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on December 1 harshly blasted Turkey’s increasingly questionable role in the alliance during a NATO Ministerial teleconference.

NATO and Turkey out of synch

The State Department has not released an official transcript of Pompeo’s remarks, but reports of Pompeo’s harsh tone were quickly leaked from various allied participants in the NATO teleconference. In his short but heated exchange with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, Pompeo reportedly criticized Turkey through language rarely if ever used with allies for its acquisition of Russian S-400 missiles over its allies’ strong opposition, for ongoing maritime disputes with Greece and Cyprus, for its support of the Tripoli government in Libya, and also for its recent material support for Azerbaijan in the recently-revived conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Pompeo reportedly said that the military “deconfliction mechanism” agreed earlier this fall between Athens and Ankara is not working because of Turkey.  If that was not enough, Pompeo also pressed Turkey to behave more like a true NATO alliance member, accusing the country of thwarting attempts to build unanimity for vital reforms.

Cavusoglu responded angrily to Pompeo in the teleconference, accusing the US of blindly aligning with Greece (Pompeo has visited twice in 15 months) and of making a series of calls before the teleconference to arrange for other allies to join in Pompeo’s criticism.  Some allies reportedly did this, but whether it was preplanned is unknown.

A warning Turkey cannot ignore

What does this mean?   The Turks may be tempted to play Pompeo’s commentary down as the rantings of an outgoing Trump Administration official who only weeks ago was denying that President Trump had lost the November election.  But they should not forget that the transition in Washington is underway and for a number of reasons Pompeo is now expressing the views of the State Department bureaucracy which will be the primary source of the incoming Biden Administration’s new policy positions.

Ankara should not underestimate for one minute the depth of mistrust official Washington has in the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan nor misjudge Washington’s willingness to take additional tough steps needed to eliminate Turkey’s options in foreign policy as well as restrict the financial support needed if Turkey is to recover from the disastrous economic policies Erdogan has ordered.

Ankara may also be inclined to spin Pompeo’s comments as those of a US official hoping to make a 2024 Presidential bid, thus distancing himself at the last minute, and possibly only for the record,  from President Trump’s close to “hands-off” policy toward Turkey, except for those instances when active US intervention was legally required, such as the issue with strong accusations of Iran sanctions violations by Turkey’s state-owned Halkbank (that case may well be the source of interesting new revelations once President Trump leaves office).

Ankara should not underestimate the depth of anger within the US government over the Russian S-400 missile system acquisition, effectively endangering NATO security.  Pompeo reportedly called this deal “a gift to Russia” in his NATO remarks.  The very visible and almost noisy ejection of Turkey from the F-35 fighter program as a consequence of the S-400 deal, with massive bipartisan congressional support, is one example of what it has already cost Ankara to provoke the US Government.  In addition, Washington is not approving Turkish requests to purchase Patriot missiles.  Allowing that same F-35 aircraft to be procured by Greece on preferential terms may well be the next step, which will also be broadly supported in the Congress.

In addition, Washington’s active support of the twin East Mediterranean coordination initiatives that have developed over the last years (Greece, Cyprus, Israel as well as Greece, Cyprus, Egypt) is the other massive loss for Turkey in recent years, and as these groupings accelerate work on tangible energy projects, could mean massive long term losses for Turkey both in regional influence and income.

Ultimately the Pompeo comments will just become a historical footnote, but this is nonetheless important in setting the stage for developments in the coming week.   On December 10, EU members may decide at their upcoming summit whether to begin the process of applying sanctions against Turkey for violating Greek and Cypriot maritime economic zones to search for gas or for breaching a UN arms embargo on Libya.


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