On June 7, Turkish voters went to the polls to decide the makeup of their next government. When Turkey last held legislative elections in 2011, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was riding high on a decade of record economic growth, newfound influence in the Middle East, and an international consensus that Turkey was more democratic than it had been at any time since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923. Four years later, that narrative had soured on nearly every front. The economy had slowed considerably, Turkish foreign policy had become bogged down in a Syrian quagmire partially of Ankara’s own making, and the government had launched any number of assaults on Turkish liberties and Turkish citizens in response to threats real and imagined. On top of this, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had turned an election in which he ostensibly was not participating into a referendum on his ambition to transform Turkey’s political system into one with a super-empowered presidency. The AKP entered the election with its past record in question and its future plans—including its very hold on a majority of the seats in the Grand National Assembly—in flux for the first time since coming to power 13 years before.
The relationship between Turkey’s ruling party and its citizens is not the only one that is highly volatile these days. Much as the AKP has suffered a bumpy ride domestically over the past few years, so has Turkey’s relationship with the United States. The “model partnership” that Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu used to wax so eloquently about—established during the heyday of relations between President Obama and Erdoğan, when Obama listed the Turkish leader as one of his five closest foreign confidantes—has given way to a far different reality. Erdoğan and other Turkish officials now regularly take potshots at the United States, accusing President Obama of not caring about his own Muslim citizens and American news organizations of inappropriately meddling in Turkish affairs and seeking to “bring down” the “New Turkey.” On the U.S. side, former ambassadors to Ankara have called for the U.S. government to take a tougher approach toward Turkey rather than treat the government with kid gloves, and it has become accepted wisdom in Washington that the U.S.-Turkey relationship is so broken and dysfunctional as to be nearly unsalvageable.
Despite the unpleasantness on both sides, U.S.-Turkey ties are far from dead and buried. While the Obama Administration has become disappointed with the limits of what Turkey can and will do to further American interests in the region, it continues to hope for greater Turkish buy-in on a range of policy issues. This delicate tightrope walk has entailed abandoning grand plans that involve an over-reliance on Turkey while avoiding too much public criticism of Ankara so as not to drive the Turks away. Rather than assume that Turkey is a consistent partner, the White House has adopted more of an a la carte approach, working with the Turkish government on issues that are of mutual interest and papering over any clashes on issues that aren’t.
This isn’t always easy, as the recent deal to allow U.S. forces to use Incirlik air base for operations against the Islamic State confirms. The deal proved both that agreement is possible, and that mutual trust is in short supply. Not one day had passed after they reached a deal before American and Turkish officials began issuing public statements differing on the scope and aim of military cooperation, and it became clear almost immediately that Turkey’s true target was Kurdish nationalism rather than the Islamic State. Despite the continuing hiccups, it does seem possible for Washington and Ankara to cooperate on geopolitical issues in a way that will advance both sides’ goals, even in instances where those goals are not quite identical.
In order for such an approach to work, however, it is important to have a clear sense of where American and Turkish strategic interests actually overlap and where they do not, and an understanding of which disagreements will remain insurmountable. There is a long history of American and Turkish strategic cooperation dating back to the earliest days of the Cold War, and despite the fact that the global order has been remade and Turkish politics have been upended in a permanent way, the United States and Turkey are still allies capable of high-level collaboration and dialogue. Calls to reset the relationship are wise, but can only succeed if guided by a sober assessment of policy convergence and divergence.
Iranian Regional Hegemony
One clear area of overlapping interest is the need for regional balancing against Iran. Washington and Ankara have different stances on Iran’s nuclear program, which has obscured the fact that their long-term interests on Iranian power in the Middle East are aligned. Now that the issue of an Iranian nuclear weapons has seemingly been resolved with the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action negotiated between the P5+1 and Iran, the U.S. and Turkish governments should work together to keep Iranian ambitions for regional hegemony in check, which will redound to both countries’ benefit.
The Obama Administration has taken a less credulous view of Iran’s nuclear program than has Turkey. While the White House’s negotiation strategy has been overly trusting of Iranian verbal commitments to the exclusion of problematic Iranian behavior in a variety of arenas, and the final agreement contains some worrisome elements that rely on Iran’s promise of compliance rather than strict external verification, the very existence of the P5+1 negotiations, along with restrictions and verification mechanisms included in the JCPOA, the JPOA, and the Lausanne Framework Agreement, demonstrate the Administration’s recognition that Iran’s nuclear program has a clear military component. To be sure, Obama’s approach to Iran’s nuclear activities has not been as hardline as Israel’s or Saudi Arabia’s, but even though the deal grants Iran a limited enrichment capacity and, as important, U.S. recognition of its right to have that capacity, the President has treated Iran’s nuclear program as a problem to be managed rather than as no problem at all. Turkey, by contrast, has taken a more trusting view of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Ankara has consistently maintained that it is opposed to an Iranian nuclear weapon, but has also insisted that there is no proof of Iranian desire to obtain one and has supported an Iranian nuclear program for civilian purposes. Turkey also voted against sanctions in the UN context when it just as easily could have abstained.
Irrespective of any differences they may have regarding the veracity of Iran’s nuclear claims, both U.S. and Turkish officials have clear reasons to work together in restraining Iran’s influence in the Middle East and preventing Iran’s development as a regional hegemon in the aftermath of a nuclear deal. Iran is a revisionist state run by a regime whose legitimacy stems from opposing the United States specifically and the Western-led global order more generally. No arms control deal can transform Iran into a dependable Western ally or a force for stability in the Middle East. Ideological revolutionary states cannot afford to damage their raison d’etre by betraying their ideology, as doing so endangers their very survival. This is particularly true when the founding generation of revolutionaries and ideologues is still on the political scene. A post-deal Iran that is no longer under the shadow of onerous sanctions is likely to accelerate the regional cold war with sectarian overtones now unfolding between Iran and the Sunni Gulf monarchies, expand its support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria and the Houthis in Yemen, and work to frustrate American allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia while countering U.S. goals in the region.
The incentive for Turkey to oppose growing Iranian strength and influence should be just as clear. Turkey’s relationship with Iran is a complicated one that has sought to focus on mutually beneficial economic ties while downplaying the fraught political situation in which the two countries find themselves on a collision course over Syria, Iraq, and NATO’s role in the region, among other issues. Turkey has attempted to increase its regional footprint by backing proxies in a number of states—generally local actors with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood or other Sunni Islamist groups. This strategy puts it at odds with Iran in nearly every instance from Ankara’s struggle to limit the influence of Shi’a militias to its attempt to boost selected Kurdish peshmerga fighters at the expense of ISIS. The rise of the Islamic State and greater Kurdish autonomy in Syria have particularly complicated the issue by magnifying Turkey and Iran’s differences over Syria’s future, with Iran repeatedly accusing Turkey of supporting ISIS and Turkey in return blaming Iran for boosting the PKK, its longtime nemesis.
In addition, Turkey and Iran are natural rivals. They are the second and third largest states in the region by population, and— in addition to Israel—have the Middle East’s most imposing and capable militaries. Iran’s rise does not benefit Turkish interests, and Turkey has recently taken steps to curtail Iranian influence in symbolically important ways, such as by supporting the Saudi air campaign in Yemen. While the benefits to Turkey of a weaker and more isolated Iran seem apparent, Turkey has not been quick to concede the point. Prime Minister (and former Foreign Minister) Davutoğlu sees Iran as having a legitimate sphere of influence in the Middle East, while Turkey’s reliance on Iran in meeting its domestic energy consumption makes a complete break unlikely if not impossible. Nevertheless, preventing Iran’s drive toward regional dominance is in both America’s and Turkey’s interest and should be a shared priority going forward, with the U.S. pressing Turkey to do far more to tamp down Tehran’s influence than make symbolic gestures.
The Syrian Mess
The first three years of the Syrian civil war introduced a fair amount of tension into the U.S.-Turkey relationship stemming from disagreements over how far to go in removing Assad from power. Erdoğan’s initial assessment was that Assad could be reasoned with, and convinced to institute enough democratic reforms to keep his international critics at bay while he consolidated control. Once Erdoğan determined that Assad was stringing him along, however, Turkey adopted an unflinchingly hardline position against Assad remaining in power and began actively seeking his removal. Despite continuously lobbying the Obama Administration to build a coalition in order to institute a no-fly zone and create a buffer zone for Syrian rebels along the Turkish border, Washington remained determined not to get actively involved, even to the point of not enforcing Obama’s own red line on Assad’s use of chemical weapons. This led to Turkey directly supporting Jabhat al-Nusra fighters against the Assad regime and indirectly aiding ISIS by adopting what amounted to an open-border policy for jihadi fighters entering into Syria through Turkey.
The main point of contention between the U.S. and Turkish governments with regard to Syria has been over the former’s position that ISIS is the primary threat to be neutralized versus the latter’s contention that ISIS is merely a symptom of Assad remaining in power. Ankara had been unwilling to consider any strategy that does not first and foremost deal with Assad, and therefore deliberately limited its support for operations targeting ISIS to some basic intelligence sharing and participation in the joint training and arming of a small group of moderate Syrian rebels. Despite optimism that the latter deal represented a breakthrough that would allow the U.S. and Turkish governments to get on the same page with regard to a unified Syria strategy, the training program was repeatedly delayed and is unlikely to move the needle in a significant way given that the number of trained rebels reentering Syria is negligible.
The recent deal that granted American planes the right to use Incirlik as a base of operations against ISIS initially appeared to be a significant breakthrough, but the story is far more complex. It seems clear now that Turkey used its Incirlik leverage as a way of gaining tacit U.S. acceptance for its stepped-up campaign against not only the PKK but against wider Kurdish interests in Syria as well. While this does indeed represent an agreement of sorts, should Turkey continue to remain largely on the sidelines in the fight against ISIS—to date, the number of strikes that Turkey has conducted since the deal was announced can be counted on one hand—it will find itself in greater conflict with the U.S. over the larger direction of its Syria policy. In addition, reports that Turkish intelligence sold out the moderate fighters it had jointly trained with the U.S. to Jabhat al-Nusra as soon as they crossed over the border indicates that all is far from copacetic. The Incirlik deal seems to be doing little to paper over the disagreements Washington and Ankara still have regarding Syria and how best to contain the spillover emanating from the civil war.
Yet U.S. and Turkish policies ultimately are not at odds when it comes to the larger outcome of stabilizing Syria and halting the flow of refugees that is spreading by the millions into Turkey and Jordan. Despite the continuing dispute over tactics and immediate priorities, neither Washington nor Ankara has an interest in propping up Assad—in contrast to Tehran, which desperately wants him to maintain his hold on Syria—or in allowing ISIS to fill the increasingly large power vacuum. The U.S. government has also shown little indication that it is prepared to actively support an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria, which is an outcome that Turkey desperately wants to avoid at nearly any cost, and now seems ready to allow Turkey to constrain Kurdish ambitions entirely. The devil is in the details, but the broad strokes of agreement exist.
This is not to say that any coordination on Syria will be easy. The Turkish government has ridden its foreign policy into the ground on the back of its determination that Assad must be deposed, no matter how unsavory the groups seeking to replace him are. Indeed, Ankara has consistently turned a blind eye to the fact that the external actor most threatened by ISIS’s rise is in fact Turkey. The Obama Administration has been nearly as resolute in its avoidance of direct military action in Syria, and hence sowed the seeds of resentment in Ankara by implying that the United States would only get involved once the situation became too critical to reasonably contain—thus dumping all the near-term liabilities on Turkey. Neither side is content with how the other has managed the situation on the ground or in diplomatic talks: Ankara resents Washington’s dismissal of its calls for a no-fly zone while Washington has been unhappy with the conditions placed, until recently, on its use of Incirlik Air Base. But again, the interests of both countries do align on containing the morass in Syria. Now that the Iran deal has been operationalized and Russian troops have moved into Syria, the U.S. and Turkey have all the more reason to get on the same page in order to deal with the new variable introduced into the equation. And the longer the fighting in Syria drags on, the more the U.S. and Turkish governments will find themselves under pressure to work together.
The United States and Turkey have not been aligned on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for some time, but their differences are surmountable given the strong interest each has in seeing the situation resolved. Both have attempted to serve as external mediators in the past with varying degrees of success, and each has some level of credibility with one of the two parties. Nevertheless, if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to be a source of cohesion rather than friction between Washington and Ankara, Turkey must cease its attempts to boost Hamas at the expense of the Palestinian Authority.
While American attempts to bring the Israelis and Palestinians together and forge a peace agreement are well known, Turkey has tried to mediate conflicts between Israel and its neighbors as well. Ankara dipped its toe into Israeli-Palestinian waters in 2007 when it invited Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas to speak to the Grand National Assembly, and organized a series of secret talks between Israel and Syria in 2008. Indeed, the deterioration in relations between Israel and Turkey can be directly traced back to these efforts, as Erdoğan became enraged with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for not informing him about the commencement of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, even though Olmert had been in Turkey only four days earlier to talk about Syria. Much has changed since 2008, from Turkey’s own foreign policy priorities to the feasibility of a negotiated settlement between Israelis and Palestinians, but Turkey’s recent actions demonstrate that it recognizes the potential benefits of solving the conflict rather than perpetuating it.
Indeed, Turkey has a real interest in making sure that its relations with Israel—which depend on Israel making some progress on changing the status quo in the West Bank and Gaza—do not deteriorate further. While political ties between the two countries are at what may be their lowest point, bilateral trade is at an all-time high, totaling $5.6 billion in 2014. Israel’s importance to the health of the Turkish economy has grown as trade with Iraq has slowed and trade with Syria has shriveled up. Given Erdoğan and Davutoğlu’s repeated, public insistence that relations with Israel will not improve absent changes in Israeli policy toward the Palestinians, Ankara has a strong incentive to make that change happen.
This is not to suggest that Turkey is in a position to push the Israelis and Palestinians together, or to play a helpful role in any actual peace talks. Israeli officials and the wider public have lost any residual trust in Turkey, so Ankara will have no success in cajoling them on any subject. But Turkey can be helpful by switching course on its patronage of Hamas, thus ensuring that Israel’s interlocutor is not a group bent on its destruction and that the Palestinian Authority establishes itself as the dominant and authoritative voice for Palestinians. Ankara has spent years not only courting Hamas and hosting its leaders in Turkey, but actively propping it up, largely to the Palestinian Authority’s detriment. Aside from providing hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, Turkey has treated Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal as a visiting head of state and given Hamas standing as a legitimate international actor, which in turn weakens the Palestinian Authority’s claim to be the sole official representative of the Palestinian people.
This policy has naturally caused friction with the PA, and unsurprisingly been a serious point of contention with the United States as well, which, along with the United Nations and the European Union, designates Hamas as a terrorist group. Turkey has more credibility with the Palestinians than the United States does, but in order to use that credibility to further American efforts to mediate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Turkey has to shift the bulk of its support away from Hamas. There are recent signs that Turkey is trying to rein in Hamas, primarily due to fear of repercussions from the United States, and if American and Turkish tactics in this arena can be brought into congruence to advance the shared goal of resolving this enduring conflict, it will provide another way forward for U.S.-Turkish cooperation.
While the three issues discussed above represent potential areas for strategic cooperation, there are several real pressure points in the U.S.-Turkey relationship that are not imminently resolvable and that limit the extent of American and Turkish cooperation. Going forward, the key test will be whether both sides can keep disagreements over these differences from spiraling out of control.
One large area of concern for the U.S. government is the uncertainty over Turkey’s continuing role as a member of the general Western and NATO alliance. This is not a result of handwringing over Turkey’s “true” nature—questions such as whether Turkey is part of the West or the East, European or Middle Eastern, and so on—which has long been a poor stand-in for actual analysis. Instead, it is Turkey’s actual behavior in recent years that fosters uncertainty as to where Ankara wants to cast its lot.
The circumstances of the Cold War led Turkey to align itself firmly with the West as a defense against Soviet domination, but the benefits of continuing such a close alliance are now not nearly as clear to Turkish policymakers. Aside from its historical paranoia about being used as a tool by Western imperial powers—known by the shorthand Sevres Syndrome to those familiar with Turkey—Ankara sees its needs being better met by other allies. On the energy front, Turkey has relatively little choice but to rely on Russian and Iranian oil and gas, and the prospective Turkish Stream natural gas pipeline, which will bring Russian gas directly to Turkey across the Black Sea, will only deepen Ankara’s dependence on Moscow to the detriment of Western leverage.
Even though its economy is now teetering dangerously, Turkey has viewed itself as the strong man rather than the sick man of Europe ever since the global financial crisis of the past decade. Rightly or wrongly, Ankara believes that too much integration into European financial institutions may end up harming more than helping it. While the European Union remains Turkey’s largest trading partner, Turkey spent the decade before the Syrian civil war cultivating deeper trade ties with the Arab world, and is now expanding heavily into African markets. In short, Turkey does not view its economic well being as depending on Europe and the West to the extent that it once did.
It is in the area of strategic relations, however, that Turkey’s ties with the NATO bloc have become the most pressing concern. NATO overcame Turkey’s reluctance to host the X-Band radar system with difficulty, and Ankara’s acquiescence came at the price of agreeing not to provide any of the radar data directly to Israel, which could use it to counter Iranian ballistic missiles. Turkish columnists with close ties to the government increasingly question Turkey’s role in NATO, and charge NATO with ignoring Turkish priorities and actually holding the country back. Turkish grumbling over the reluctance to invoke Article 5 as a way of dealing with Assad despite Turkey twice in 2012 invoking Article 4 in response to Syrian provocations ignores the fact that Article 5 has only been invoked once in NATO’s history (in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States), but it does show how deeply dissatisfied the Turks are with the alliance. This dissatisfaction has recently worsened following the decisions by the U.S. and Germany to pull their Patriot missile batteries out of Turkey’s southern border, a move that infuriated Ankara.
The dissatisfaction does run both ways, however, and nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in Turkey’s decision to purchase a $3.4 billion missile defense system from a Chinese company under international sanctions. While the decision has yet to be officially finalized, Turkey has announced multiple times that China’s Precision Machinery Import and Export Corporation has won the bid, despite competing bids from a Raytheon/Lockheed Martin consortium and the French Eurosam consortium. The anger on the part of Turkey’s NATO allies is not about the loss of a lucrative contract, but about Ankara choosing a company that is currently subject to sanctions for violating the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act.
Even more disturbingly, by choosing the Chinese bid, Turkey has made it impossible for its nascent missile defense system to be integrated into NATO’s proposed European Phased Adaptive Approach anti-ballistic defense network, casting doubt on whether Turkey values its inclusion in the NATO alliance at all. While this decision has raised hackles throughout the defense ministries of Western capitals, Turkey has brushed away the criticism by wrongly insisting that its new system will be NATO-compatible and stressing its prioritization of the technology transfer that will come with the Chinese bid. Meanwhile, it has ignored the message its decision sends to NATO allies seeking to establish an integrated strategy and a system for dealing with future Russian and Iranian missile threats. If Turkey is indeed in the process of mentally checking out of NATO while prioritizing other security arrangements like missile defense technology transfers, it raises real questions as to whether American and Turkish strategic interests around the globe remain aligned. This affects a range of defense issues—such as whether Turkish authorities can be trusted to protect sensitive technology, like that pertaining to the F-35 program, in which Turkey, along with other NATO allies, is a component subcontractor.
Another pressing area of concern is the state of Turkish democracy. The erosion of Turkish democracy over the past decade has been well documented: limitations on press freedom and freedom of speech, discrimination against religious minorities, and rhetorical attacks by the government on foreign and domestic media and businesses are all on the rise, among other worrisome signs. The corruption allegations leveled against members of the Turkish cabinet in December 2013 brought the battle that had been brewing between the government and its erstwhile allies in the Gülen movement into the open. Gülenists were arrested and the judiciary and the police, both Gülenist strongholds, purged. The U.S. government initially downplayed these actions and did little to take Ankara to task in public, believing that Turkey was too vital to U.S. interests in the region to risk alienating Erdoğan in any way. As the government’s verbal attacks against the United States became more explicit, however, U.S. officials began to push back to some extent. American patience with Turkey is stretched so thin that when Davutoğlu paid a visit to the United States in March, he did not come to Washington and remarkably had no official meetings with any representatives of the U.S. government. Any talk of Turkey as a model for other countries in the region—which was always misplaced—or as a hallmark synthesis of Islam and democracy is now a distant memory, and despite the recent limited electoral setback for the AKP, most close observers of Turkey are not holding their breaths for a democratic renaissance.
Turkey’s democratic decline has brought with it a familiar resort to nationalism and xenophobic broadsides against foreign enemies seeking to bring down the “New Turkey”, with the United States occupying an exalted position as the primary culprit. Yet the autocratic tendencies of Erdoğan and his circle of sycophants also create problems for the U.S. government in other ways. The American record of supporting democracy abroad is spotty, and exceptions have been made for decades when it comes to strategically important allies, but standing by while a member of NATO, an EU membership applicant, and the host of this year’s G-20 summit takes an autocratic turn sends a bad signal to other countries and democratic movements overseas. The U.S. government has a strong interest in ensuring that a country of 80 million people occupying Europe’s eastern edge stays true to its democratic commitments. There is also the additional variable that previous non-democratic governments in Turkey’s history were largely of the military variety, and the militantly secular and unabashedly pro-Western Kemalist officers were not going to take Turkey out of the American orbit. Should Turkey fall further down the rabbit hole under the AKP, however, it is not likely to end with an authoritarian Turkey that is still able to work in relative harmony with the United States. The days of pro-Western Turkish military coups are over.
The United States is beginning to communicate its concerns with the state of Turkish democracy to Ankara with increasing frequency and stridency, but there is little sign that these concerns are being taken seriously. The state of politics in Turkey is such that the AKP’s behavior has become more worrisome the more it has been confronted with opposition, and while it is still possible that the party will take a more humble approach following the loss of its majority in parliament, the opposite appears to be happening. Before mid-August, it was not yet entirely clear whether the AKP would set up a minority government, go to early elections, or form a coalition with the hyper-nationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP)—but none of those options promised a platform of reinvigorating Turkey’s democratic institutions. Ultimately, despite signals that Davutoğlu’s preference was to form a coalition of some sort, Erdoğan’s preferences carried the day and new elections have been called for November 1 in a clear bid for the AKP to regain its majority by diminishing Kurdish political gains.
The situation could easily deteriorate further if the stalled Kurdish peace process remains in neutral or if crackdowns on the Gülen movement intensify and eventually provoke a counter-response. The military assault on the PKK and the rhetorical assault on the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) have already led to renewed violence between the Turkish armed forces and Kurdish separatist groups, and large-scale violence in the streets may not be far behind. Furthermore, the snap election campaign is likely to feature an uptick in ugly rhetoric from Erdoğan and AKP officials as well as further efforts to suppress the opposition vote.
The failure to form a government and the attempt to reverse the results of the June election lend credence to the accusation that the AKP views elections not as an exercise in democratic government but as an exercise in cementing its own power. U.S. worries about the state of Turkish democracy and clashes with the Turkish government look now to be a feature of the relationship rather than a bug going forward.
Finally, there is the issue of what the new regional order in the Middle East will look like, and here U.S and Turkish desiderata differ as well. While American and Turkish priorities in the Middle East seemed aligned for a brief movement at the outset of the so-called Arab Spring, they have been diverging ever since. The U.S. inclination has been to attempt to work within reason with whichever governments emerge, and since initially it appeared that this meant dealing with Muslim Brotherhood-type governments, the policy fit with Turkey’s preferences. Ankara was, along with Qatar, one of the loudest supporters of Mohammed Morsi, and the White House determined that being on the right side of history meant working with Morsi so long as his priorities did not damage American interests. The decision not to get involved in the Syrian civil war also aligned with Turkey’s early priority of keeping Assad in power but forcing him into a series of reforms.
Once Turkey flipped on Assad and Morsi was deposed by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the Egyptian army, however, U.S. and Turkish policies diverged. Turkey’s rage at Sisi and constant calls for the Egyptian military to respect the democratic process were not matched by the U.S. government, which initially withheld funds from Egypt but finally gave up the charade in March, when it unfroze military aid to the Sisi government. Turkey has consistently tried to influence outcomes that bring Islamist governments to power, while the United States seems content to live with any government that assumes power so long as it can actually govern and does not threaten key American interests in the region.
The aftermath of the Arab Spring has not only divided Turkish and U.S. policies from each other, but also fractured the entire Middle East—with Iran empowering Shi’a movements, Saudi Arabia and the majority of the Gulf monarchies supporting the old order, and Turkey and Qatar boosting Sunni Islamist groups. One can debate whether the Obama Administration has tacitly sided with the first camp or the second camp, but it certainly has not adopted Turkish priorities for the emerging regional order. Turkey’s recent rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and the temporary dialing down of verbal broadsides against the Sisi government (since resumed with the announcement of the Morsi death sentence) indicate that Turkey may be stepping back in the face of defeat, but its desires for the region are still at odds with those of the United States.
The Path Ahead
Despite its importance to both countries, the relationship between the U.S. and Turkish governments will continue to be plagued by problems. While their interests are aligned in some ways, they are at odds on others, and communication between the two countries is less than ideal. Given the importance of U.S.-Turkey cooperation on a host of regional issues, from stabilizing Syria to containing Iran to maintaining stability in the face of highly unstable Arab politics, the failure of the two countries to get on the same page and recognize when their ultimate goals overlap has impeded a more effective U.S. policy in the Middle East. These problems are not easily remedied, but doing so is also not impossible.
One immediate step that Washington and Ankara should take is to establish a bilateral high-level strategic dialogue on Syria. That dialogue needs to go beyond deals about the uses of military bases. This will have two immediate benefits.
First, it will allow for greater coordination on Obama’s stated goal of degrading and destroying ISIS while laying the groundwork for Assad’s removal as President of a unified Syria. As ISIS has advanced in Syria and Iraq, Turkey has begun to grudgingly concede that the ISIS problem must be addressed. Whereas cooperation was previously a non-starter until the Obama Administration first committed to a no-fly zone and the creation of a buffer zone, the Incirlik deal represented an admission by Turkey that it could no longer hold out for its preferred scenario—though the growing threat of Kurdish autonomy in Syria was at least as much a catalyst for this decision as ISIS’s victories. In the United States, there is a growing recognition that Syria cannot be put back together with Assad at the helm, and so engaging in a dialogue with Turkey will help identify issues of convergence and clarify each side’s position.
Second, a serious dialogue will establish a baseline of cooperation outside of political channels, which have become a stumbling block as the Obama-Erdoğan relationship has deteriorated. Removing the discussion from the political arena—with its accusations of foreign lobbies and harboring traitors in Pennsylvania—may enable the strategic reset that is required.
In addition, the U.S. government must permanently recalibrate its expectations for what it can expect from Turkey. Critics who completely write Turkey off as an ally go too far, but there is a basis for the criticism. A country that routinely bashes the United States for interfering in its affairs, helps Iran evade U.S.-led sanctions, and is currently assisting Russia in its efforts to use its energy policy as a weapon against Europe, is not necessarily one that should be housing U.S. nuclear weapons or hosting the most important regional airbase used by the U.S. military. The U.S. government is frequently surprised by Turkish decisions that it did not anticipate, finding its preferred plans stymied after a misreading of Turkish intentions. The 2003 rerouting of the Fourth Infantry Division to Iraq through Kuwait rather than through Turkey is the most prominent example.
While the United States must continue to cooperate on initiatives on which it shares an interest with Turkey, it should abandon the assumption that interests will generally overlap rather than do so only on a case-by-case basis. The strategic relationship is by no means over, but the lack of a common superpower enemy and the transformation of politics in Turkey concurrent with the AKP’s rise also mean that the relationship is permanently changed. So, for that matter, is the region within which any cooperation would occur. The faster that U.S. policymakers recognize this new reality and adapt accordingly, the better off both the United States and Turkey will be.