“I don’t want to be responsible for destroying the Turkish economy – and I will,” US President Donald Trump wrote in a “juvenile” letter to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in October 2019 as Turkish forces launched an attack on Syrian Kurds. Trump then referred to economic sanctions his administration imposed on Turkey as it pushed for the release of American pastor Andrew Brunson, who had been jailed there. “Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool! I will call you later,” Trump concluded.
The Turkish president said he read Trump’s letter and then threw it in the trash. But it surely shocked him. The crucial question is whether Trump would again write such a letter to rein Erdogan in over Turkey’s activities in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Trump has good reasons for doing so; and he also has arrows in his quiver. He can always sign a paper currently lying on the desk of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that would activate sanctions against Turkey for its purchase of the Russian-made S-400 defense systems. Congress has already passed bills requiring the government to impose sanctions. All Trump has to do is add his signature. This will become more urgent if reports are confirmed that Turkey test-fired the system on Friday. Pompeo would never make such a move without Trump’s approval. Who could influence the US president? The Greek-American community is not organized enough to pressure him on the issue. A large portion of the diaspora voted for Trump, but the people who are involved in the Greek-American lobby have better ties and access to his Democratic rival Joe Biden.
Despite the repeated efforts by several renowned members of the diaspora, there is no individual that could pick up the phone and talk to Trump and expect a meaningful result. Meanwhile, there is no such thing as a coordinated Greek-American campaign that could make a difference. That is despite the fact that in Trump’s mind even a few thousand votes would make a difference. Greece’s friends in the Middle East also have not picked up the phone. The weeks in the runup to the presidential elections and then after the swearing-in ceremony of the next president are critical.
Erdogan is out of control and testing everyone’s patience. Even if Trump wrote him another threatening letter or told him off over the phone, it’s far from certain that Erdogan would pay heed.
The Turkish strongman appears to have decided that he can take the risk of a rupture with the West or of an extremely risky bargain. And although Erdogan himself might not listen, the markets would. And, in this phase, it would perhaps be more crucial for the lira to get upset than for Erdogan himself.