Daunting task awaits new U.S. ambassador to Turkey, Satterfield

The new U.S. ambassador to Turkey, David Satterfield, presented his credentials to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Wednesday, nearly two years after the previous U.S. ambassador's posting ending acrimoniously.

Satterfield, a veteran diplomat and “outstanding Arabist” who has served in important roles related to the Middle East, said he was honoured to represent the United States in Turkey.

“My government is committed to strengthening this important relationship with a NATO ally and partner”, Satterfield said.

With seemingly intractable disputes holding the two countries apart, the task will be a tough challenge even for a seasoned diplomat whose career has seen him direct the State Department’s Office of Arab-Israeli affairs in the 1990s and serve as an ambassador in Iraq during the U.S. occupation.

Erdoğan announced he would no longer recognise Satterfield’s predecessor, John R. Bass, after Washington cancelled visitor visas from Turkey in 2017.

That spat was triggered when the Turkish authorities arrested a U.S. consulate worker, Metin Topuz, on terror charges linked to the July 2016 failed coup attempt.

The ambassador’s position had remained empty since then, and in the ensuing years the countries’ relations have been soured by a succession of bitter disagreements.

In 2018 a diplomatic row triggered a currency crisis in Turkey after U.S. President Donald Trump hit two Turkish ministers with sanctions over the detention of a U.S. pastor.

This year, Ankara’s decision to go through with the purchase of Russian S-400 missile defence systems has left many U.S. lawmakers determined to press more serious sanctions on Turkey.

Trump has said he would prefer to forego punitive measures against Turkey, but with Ankara’s relations with Moscow growing closer, and Erdoğan’s foreign policy deepening conflicts with Turkey’s Western partners, Satterfield will face a challenging post.

One of the most immediate challenges is the safe zone in northern Syria currently being negotiated by U.S. and Turkish officials.

The Turkish military operation against Kurdish militants south of the border threatened by Erdoğan last month could have seen U.S. soldiers posted in the area come under the firing line.

Ankara views the Syrian Kurdish groups as terrorists due to their links to Kurdish insurgents operating in Turkey, but Washington is reluctant to end its support of fighters who have played a key role in combating the Islamic State (ISIS).

Meanwhile, Erdoğan has signalled that he could consider buying more Russian military hardware, even though the S-400 purchase led to a diplomatic crisis with the United States that saw Turkey expelled from the F-35 fighter jet programme.

During a visit to a Moscow air show this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin showed Erdoğan his country’s Su-57 and Su-34 fighters. The Russian-built fighters have already been marked by Turkish officials as a possible replacement for the F-35.

This could prove to be another serious test for Washington’s new man in Ankara, as observers are already raising questions about a Russian-armed Turkey’s position in NATO.