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Relations Sour Between The U.S. And Turkey


President Trump spoke today with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This call comes at a difficult moment diplomatically between the United States and Turkey, which is a key NATO ally, although Turkey's foreign minister is insisting this week that the alliance remains strong. NPR's Peter Kenyon has covered this story for years. He's based in Istanbul.

Hi, Peter.


INSKEEP: You know, I think if you have to say things are good, sometimes it's indication they're not.

KENYON: Yeah, exactly. And I've been talking to a lot of folks recently - diplomats, politicians, ordinary Turks on the street, analysts - and all the answers I'm getting are negative. It's bad. It's getting worse. Why isn't it being turned around?

I talked to one analyst Sinan Ulgen. He heads a think tank here in Istanbul. And he says this doesn't feel quite the same as the past crises that they've had. And there have been a few over the decades. But this, he says, is a little bit different. Here's how he put it.

SINAN ULGEN: The relationship is indeed very bad. There's a very significant erosion of trust, which we really haven't witnessed in this relationship over the past many decades.

KENYON: Now, what he's talking about is this rising anti-American sentiment in Turkey. You hear it all the time. It's quite regular for people on the street to say, yes, of course America was involved in this coup we had - attempted coup last year. Washington...

INSKEEP: Conspiracy theory, OK.

KENYON: Yeah - well, exactly. And possibly even the CIA was involved - all kinds of stories you can hear.

And the reason - the U.S. denies it of course. But people here say, why else would you not give us back this cleric, Fethullah Gulen, who Turkey says was behind the coup?

And then you look at it from the other perspective - if Washington looks at Turkey, it sees a state of emergency still ongoing, tens of thousands arrested, a lot of people sacked from their jobs. They watch Turkey buying Russian missiles instead of from a NATO country, storming out of recent NATO exercises. There's also a lot of anger here in Turkey over trials going on in the U.S., including one about alleged evasion of Iran sanctions.

INSKEEP: OK. So what is that? What are these trials you're describing?

KENYON: Well, this one in particular - it's known here as the gold for oil scheme. Turkey allegedly made payments for petroleum products to Iran but disguised them so as to avoid U.S. sanctions on doing business with Tehran.

Now, the reason it's a big deal here is because similar charges came up in 2013 at the time when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and this cleric, Fethullah Gulen, had their big split. There was an explosive anti-corruption probe alleging graft at the highest levels of government. Some of those same claims are going - likely to appear in this trial. And there's fear here that possible wiretap evidence could be used, including maybe the voices of senior officials. So there's a lot of nervousness here.

INSKEEP: You know Peter, as you're talking, I'm thinking about U.S. relations with another country, Pakistan, where the two sides sometimes are furious at each other, almost seem to hate each other. And there are news events that make things worse from time to time. But in the end, they decide they have an interest in cooperating on some level.

Does Turkey still see its interests in such a way that the interests would dictate that it stick with the West and stick with the U.S., even if they're not happy about it?

KENYON: On occasion, as these latest comments from the foreign minister suggest, they do again sing that tune that the relationship is too important to break. It's not beyond repair. But there's a lot more urgency now about the need to get things turned around now. And everything we're seeing so far suggests just the opposite. Turkey's moving towards Russia, especially on Syria. And they're strong-willed leaders who may not be in a conciliatory mood. So what happens will remain to be seen.

INSKEEP: Peter, thanks very much.

KENYON: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Peter Kenyon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.