If you were an avid reader of the Turkish press, which is almost 90 percent controlled by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his extended partners and allies, you would be forgiven for thinking that the bloody, failed coup of July 15, 2016 was engineered by none other than Turkey’s longstanding NATO ally, the United States of America. Not a day goes by that a new calumny is not invented accusing the U.S. government, its military, its institutions, and citizens of complicity in the coup. It is not just the press that partakes in this orgy of recrimination; leading members of the government, including the President, have pointed accusatory fingers as well.
There is no question that Washington and Ankara have been experiencing perhaps the most difficult period in their bilateral relationship since the 1974 Cyprus crisis. At the heart of their present differences is Syria. It was not always thus. At the beginning of the uprisings in the Arab world, and in particular in Syria, Turkey and the United States seemed to be on the same wavelength and cooperated closely. However, divergences emerged first with the rise of al-Qaeda elements backed by Turkey and later with U.S. support for the Syrian Kurds in response to the rise of the Islamic State (IS). The Syrian Kurds, organized under the rubric of the Democratic Union Party of Syria, PYD, and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units, YPG, are closely related to Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK, which has conducted a thirty-year insurgency against the Turkish state. Both Washington and Ankara have categorized the latter as a terrorist group, notwithstanding the fact that Erdogan himself a few years ago boldly engaged in peace talks with the PKK.
The U.S. reaction to Turkish accusations of complicity in the coup, as well as to the general atmosphere of enmity stoked by the Turkish leadership, has been relatively subdued. It is as if Washington expects that at some point in the future the Turks will relent in their senseless accusations, and the relationship will improve as it has after similar episodes in the past. Or perhaps at least some American decision-makers are exercising strategic patience, calculating that the Erdogan phenomenon is transient, and that the relationship is too important to sacrifice over a fit of pique by an exotic personality. If so, the focus needs to remain on damage limitation until the storm passes.
This time may be different, however. The problem may not be just or mainly Erdogan, but deeper changes in Turkish society and politics, highlighted by the now long tenure in power of the AK Party movement. Among other novel near-term factors is that Turkey has simultaneously been at odds with its European allies, accusing them as well of all kinds of perfidy. Ankara’s relations with Berlin hit a particular low this past summer and fall when Turkish authorities arrested and detained a German human rights activist who was taking part in a conference with a number of his local Turkish counterparts. Accused of trying to foment another coup, he has joined other Germans and German-Turkish dual nationals in prison who also have been remanded into pre-trial custody without having been formally charged with any crime.
Although one can argue that a long and arduous effort to repair the U.S.-Turkish relationship remains possible, the baseline will be even worse than it is today, because the real test is yet to come. It will come when the Islamic State’s capital Raqqa falls to the joint Syrian Kurdish Arab force, because, at that point, the Turks will expect Washington to stop supporting the PYD/YPG and prevent it from declaring an autonomous zone in territories it controls. Yet the U.S. government may be reluctant to stop its support for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Arab-Syrian Kurdish partnership under whose guise the YPG operates, because the fall of Raqqa will not mean the complete eradication of IS. The Islamic State is capable of mutating and dispersing itself with deadly consequences. The Syrian Kurdish zone in the north will remain an important bulwark not just against the rejuvenation of IS but also against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian allies. Hence, Erdogan will likely be disappointed in Washington. One influence that is also difficult to factor in is President Donald Trump’s personal preferences with respect to Turkey; it is worth remembering that, while Trump expressed admiration for Erdogan and even congratulated him on foiling the July coup, his business interests in Turkey did not lead to a reversal of his predecessor’s policies with respect to the Kurds but rather to their accelerated implementation.
The underlying truth to current tensions in U.S.-Turkish relations, a truth the colors the entire history of the bilateral relationship, is that the Turkish-American relationship, while generally close, has been characterized not by shared values—as with nearly all of America’s other NATO allies—but rather by realpolitik. For successive U.S. administrations, it has been Turkey’s geographic centrality, whether in the Cold War era or in the more recent era of Middle Eastern convulsions. For Turkey, it was the protection America offered in an uncertain post-World War II era, support for security challenges, and the economic benefits derived from what was by far the most powerful nation on the planet.
However, recent developments, catalyzed and mediated via the Syria cauldron, do not augur well for the future of Turkish-Western, and not just Turkish-American, relations. The reverberations careening out of Syria coincide with Turkey’s domestic crisis of confidence, which is both product and propellant for the emergence of an Erdoganist regime that is intent not just on reshaping Turkish society and political order, but is also determined to play a new and anti-systemic international role. That aspiration will change the European-Turkish dynamic and contribute to an international political environment that fosters greater distrust and competition among states. Erdogan’s grandiose plans for self-sufficiency and industrial prowess may be unrealistic but are probably harmless. The risks of his style of brinksmanship spiraling out of control are very real, however. Unless checked in one way or another, Turkey’s dependence on the West for its economic and political well-being may not survive.
Turkish-American Relations, Then and Now
Turkish and American officials, be they diplomats, soldiers, financial, economic and technical experts, have thick and numerous interactions on a daily basis. There is nothing surprising about this; after all, they are part of the same military alliance, NATO, and have even fought alongside each other, as in Korea. Until the end of the Cold War in 1989, the bilateral relationship was constructed on two axes: confronting the Soviet Union and its allies; and the management of the turbulent and antagonistic rapport between two neighboring NATO allies, Greece and Turkey. In general, the U.S. government had an interest in a stable and prosperous Turkey as the best possible bulwark against Moscow; democracy was preferable of course but until the advent of Turgut Özal, the maverick conservative and yet economically astute and visionary leader in 1983, Washington usually restricted itself to lip service about Turkish domestic political issues.
That changed with the end of the Cold War, as successive U.S. administrations increasingly perceived Turkey as a stabilizing force in the greater Middle East. Hence the American approach to Turkey became more nuanced and sophisticated, coming ultimately to define Turkish well-being in a three-dimensional way that included rule of law and adherence to some element of democratic principles. In this context, Washington exhibited extraordinary zeal in supporting Ankara’s goals for joining the European Union. In effect, it became Ankara’s number one lobbyist in Brussels, constantly pushing the EU leadership to ease up on its requirements for Turkish association, be it for a customs union or EU membership to improve the road map for Turkish accord with Europe.
Fundamentally, it was Turkey’s geographic location that made it an essential ally for Washington. Turkey controlled Soviet access to the Mediterranean from the Black Sea through the narrow Bosporus and Dardanelles, supplemented European defense and hosted American military equipment and personnel at the critical Incirlik air force base in southern Turkey and elsewhere. To date, Incirlik has been a key component of forward U.S. strategy but has also become a source of contention between the two governments as the underlying foundation of the relationship shifted.
Starting immediately after World War II, Turkey sought protection from a rapacious Soviet Union that signaled it desired to absorb some of Turkey’s eastern provinces. Thanks to the Truman Doctrine and NATO adhesion, the Turkish state received protection and an opportunity to refurbish its antiquated military.
At first, the U.S. military planners were not enthusiastic about Turkish (and Greek) participation in NATO because they feared it would distract from their efforts to consolidate their defense plans for the central European theater. Turkey together with Greece, however, persisted in their desire to join the alliance and receive critical U.S. military and economic assistance. Since then the relationship has become deeply institutionalized, if focused largely on diplomatic and military personnel relationships. High politics relationships over the years have naturally been less dense and have fluctuated more.
The length and strength of the bilateral relationship, thus described, has paradoxically not stopped growing mistrust in Turkey for the United States. Just as in many other countries, the elite has embraced Washington, sending their children to study, absorbing the cultural and even some of the political attributes of America. Yet in Turkish politics, being closely identified with America has always been a burden. During the 1945 to 1989 period, three events particularly unsettled the Turks.
The first of these was the decision, in what was perceived to be a deal with Moscow during the Cuban Missile Crisis, to remove antiquated Jupiter missiles from Incirlik. Turkish officials who saw in these missiles a nuclear umbrella and an American commitment were angered by the ease with which their interests were discarded. In reality, the Kennedy Administration had decided before the crisis to remove them.
The second event was the 1964 letter from President Lyndon B. Johnson to Ankara strongly warning the Turks against intervening militarily on Cyprus following outbreaks of inter-communal strife on the island. The “Johnson Letter” came to assume mythical proportions in Turkey as an example of American insincerity and duplicity. Nonetheless, the events surrounding the letter remain murky; the Turkish government, displaying all the signs of wanting to intervene and pushed by an engaged domestic opinion, did not really have the wherewithal to invade the island since it lacked the most elementary of necessities at the time: landing craft. Hence, the Johnson Letter could have been intended as a device that allowed Ankara to back away from doing something it could not do properly in the first place.
The third and probably most consequential event was the imposition by the U.S. Congress of an arms embargo on Turkey following its 1974 Cyprus invasion. Opposed by the Ford Administration, Congress was reacting to domestic constituencies that had been mobilized in support of the ban. Three years later the Carter Administration managed to get the embargo lifted; nonetheless, the episode left an indelible mark on the bilateral relationship and still failed in its intent to get Turkish troops off the island.
In the 1990s and beyond, Turkey also received critical U.S. support in its fight against the PKK. The most successful and dramatic event was the 1998 capture of the PKK founder Abdullah Öcalan who had received refuge in Syria. Forced out by Turkish threats, Öcalan was discovered hiding at the residence of the Greek ambassador to Kenya by U.S. intelligence and promptly handed over to Ankara. Despite Öcalan’s rendition, Turks, officials and the person on the street, to this day remain convinced that the U.S. government harbors secret intentions to carve up Turkey and create a Kurdish state in its eastern provinces.
The contrast between Turkish behavior and rhetoric has encouraged Washington over the years to discount public pronouncements and focus on the day-to-day business of diplomacy. In fact, despite disagreements, Ankara has allowed its territory to be used by American forces in many of its Middle East engagements. Ankara was intensely opposed to America’s support for Iraqi Kurds after the first Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein’s troops engaged in a murderous rampage that caused a humanitarian crisis as Kurds abandoned their villages and towns and escaped towards the Turkish border. At one level, the American response through Operation Provide Comfort prevented the Kurds from becoming a refugee crisis that Turkey was ill prepared to handle. However, without Turkish support for Operation Northern Watch, the no-fly zone over northern Iraq, Saddam could not have been contained and Iraqi Kurds could not have sowed the seeds of their own political institutions. As the U.S. involvement in Iraq deepened with the March 2003 invasion, the Bush Administration sought to use Incirlik. Though rebuffed by Parliament, Erdogan’s newly elected AKP administration did provide other kinds of logistical help.
The gist is that, despite several Cold War-era bumps and bruises, the bilateral relationship solidified, and stable mutual expectations grew. As already noted, original U.S. doubts about incorporating Turkey into NATO notwithstanding, over time especially strong relations developed between American and Turkish officials, civilian and military. Many Americans become real champions of Turkish preferences within the U.S. bureaucracy as what it is fair to call a pro-Turkey bureaucratic rump developed inside the interagency. Still, ongoing difficulties and a general lack of trust prevented the development of the kind of affinity that characterizes relations even between World War II’s defeated power, Germany, and the United States. In effect, the relationship, never warm, could at best be characterized as an alliance of convenience, or perhaps of perceived necessity.
Given that mixed history, it is not the least surprising that post-Cold War dynamics had a rumpling impact on U.S.-Turkish relations as, absent the Soviet threat, other issues surfaced during the Clinton presidency. The most important of these related to freedom of expression, religious rights, and human rights violations inside Turkey. Whether it was the repression of Kurdish rights or the right to express one’s piety more openly, increasing U.S. criticism rankled Turkish leaders. The 1990s was the last decade of overt military influence in Turkish politics; for the army, Kurds and religion were the two neuralgic topics. Turkey’s founder Kemal Atatürk had erected the new state on a strict interpretation of secularism that did not allow Islam a role except as defined down by the elite. Similarly, it had also created the fiction that all residents of Turkey were ethnically Turks and that Kurds, who comprised 15-20 percent of the population, simply were not who they thought they were.
Hence the return of the Kurdish question to the forefront—with the beginning of the PKK insurgency in the late 1980s and early 1990s and the rekindling of demands from religiously oriented parties—riled the army-backed establishment elite. Washington’s growing impatience—echoed by European capitals—with Turkish reluctance to open up the system despite the strong political and military support it provided to the fight against the PKK frustrated both the Americans as well as regime supporters in Turkey who resented the interference. The Iraqi crises of the 1990s did not help the situation.
The advent in 2003 of the initially religiously moderate Erdogan-led AKP, which embraced the rhetoric of democratization, tolerance, and adherence to European norms, opened a new chapter in Turkish-American and Turkish-European relations. Erdogan and the AKP’s espousal of these ideas was strategic; it ensured them a degree of protection from their own military and the secular nationalist elite and support from the U.S. and European governments. Events proved Erdogan and his colleagues right to construct these “democratic” alliances. In 2007, the military high command issued an ultimatum to prevent the candidacy of then-Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül for the vacant presidency. The army’s primary objection revolved around the fact Gül’s wife covered herself with an Islamic headscarf; his ascendancy therefore to the position that Atatürk once held was simply a step too far. Erdogan called the officers’ bluff by scheduling national elections that resulted in a resounding victory for the government. It was the single most important victory civilians had ever won against entrenched military interests, and Gül’s assumption of the presidency signaled the beginning of the end of military tutelage in Turkish politics.
Believing that the AKP phenomenon was pro-democratic and moderate as regards to Islam, many in Washington celebrated this turn of events. But not surprisingly, with the gradual decline in the military’s power, Erdogan and the AKP began to consolidate their hold on state and society. Reforms were introduced one by one that institutionally and informally further reduced the secular establishment’s influence, be it in the judiciary, educational system, business, or the bureaucracy.
As it happened, Erdogan had one significant ally in all this outside his own party: Fethullah Gülen. Gülen, a cleric who heads a vast global religious organization with numerous economic enterprises at its core had in late 1990s gone on voluntary exile in the United States. Erdogan and Gülen had similar interests; both saw themselves as victims of the secular state and collaborated in the effort curb the power of the military and its secular elite ally. With the 2007 elections and the 2010 referendum revamping the judiciary they had largely accomplished their agenda. It was abundantly clear that they were the two most powerful organizations left standing in Turkey.
Just as in a bipolar international system, these two leaders began to clash, each desiring to limit the other’s power. Gülen struck first by trying to sabotage the AKP’s opening to Turkish Kurds and then by leaking graphic tapes detailing corruption allegations against the government, including then Prime Minister Erdogan, his son, and other members of his entourage. Erdogan’s response was to turn the tables on Gülen and all of his business interests in an effort to cripple and eradicate him once and for all. He quickly had Gülen’s group declared a terrorist organization.
This transformation of Turkish domestic politics eventually had major repercussions for Turkish foreign policy and especially relations with the United States. The AKP-Gülenist domestic conflict culminated with the failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016. The government immediately assigned the blame solely on Gülen. It unleashed a countrywide effort to purge all societal institutions of Gülenist adherents and opportunistically of other opponents. The actual events of the July 15 remain of uncertain origin. Although very few units appeared to have participated in the attempt, the government immediately dismissed some 149 generals and admirals representing 46 percent of all general staff. Similarly, countless senior officers, colonels, majors, and captains—almost all staff officers, that is, those on whom the military relies for filling command positions—were also dismissed. Many were arrested and charged with complicity in the coup, although scores were not even in Turkey at the time but on post in NATO-member countries or NATO headquarters. Also, some 150,000 people were dismissed from their jobs in the civil service and 50,000 more were arrested, including 170 journalists.
Simultaneously, on April 16, 2017, Erdogan pushed through referendum that transformed Turkey from a parliamentary system into a presidential one that concentrated all powers, ranging from the judiciary to the educational system, in his person. The referendum passed by the barest of margins (51-49 percent) despite a massive one-sided campaign and harassment of all opposition efforts at challenging the government’s narrative. There were widespread reports of irregularities, and one academic study strongly suggested that Erdogan had in fact lost the vote. The referendum results demonstrate that, despite Erdogan’s complete command of the airwaves and the press, his rule and legitimacy are contested, creating a sense of ambient vulnerability within and outside the government.
These domestic changes have taken place in the context of what Turkey sees as a critical challenge on its southern border—that is, the ascendancy of the Syrian Kurds, loosed to roam and organize in the wake of the collapse of the Syrian state. Even before the Americans partnered with the Syrian Kurds serious disagreements surfaced between the Obama Administration and Turkey over the course of the Syrian uprising. Still, President Obama had pointedly visited Turkey in his first European trip to deliver a speech at the Turkish parliament. It was an attempt to showcase the Turkish-American relationship and to signal that the partnership would assume a new importance. The timing of the visit coincided with Turkey’s growing international presence and influence, improved economic performance, and, for the first time, membership in the United Nations Security Council.
Already a member of the G-20 representing the twenty largest economies in the world, Turkey was anxious to parlay its new stature into “soft power.” Indeed, Turkey was ascendant. Despite Obama’s warm opening to Turkey, Erdogan angered his American allies by engineering with Brazil an end run around American efforts to build a global consensus on imposing sanctions on Iran. Erdogan and Brazilian President Lula suddenly appeared in Tehran announcing a unilateral deal of their own that would have undermined months of painstaking American diplomacy. Washington furiously beat back the effort, but Turkey was the only U.S. ally to cast a vote against Washington in the Security Council. The Iran sanctions issue would not go away. Ankara, through an Iranian-Turkish business intermediary, Reza Zarrab, engaged in a massive effort to help Tehran evade some of the most onerous aspects of these sanctions. In fact, this businessman is now in Federal custody in New York, having been arrested more than a year ago during a U.S. visit for having aided the sanction-busting efforts.
The Turkish-American relationship damaged by disagreements over Iran got a brief reprieve with the Arab Spring. Increasingly, Obama came to see Turkey’s democratic experiment, especially the marriage between pluralistic institutions with Islamic piety, as an example for Arab societies undergoing monumental change. But it was in Syria that the partnership with Turkey assumed a role that went beyond that of exemplar to the Arabs.
Ironically enough, both government shared the same core goal in Syria: Assad had to go. Erdogan felt the sting of the rejected suitor, for he had invested much in a better Turkish relationship with Syria, only to watch as Assad spurned his every suggestion. He therefore sought and expected actual collaboration with the United States on the ground against the Assad regime. But here, too, Erdogan and Obama clashed despite sharing the same core objective. Frustrated with the inability of the Western-backed fighters to deliver a decisive blow against the Assad regime, Turkey provided support for all kinds of jihadis, including the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front. Southern Turkey became these extremists’ strategic depth as they set up their support operations for fighters in Syria. Much to the consternation of Washington and the discomfiture of Turkey itself, the Islamic State became the main beneficiary of this tactical system.
The real crisis between Turkey and the United States began with Obama’s October 2014 decision to support the Syrian Kurds, when IS assaulted the Syrian border town of Kobani. Erdogan made his preferences crystal clear: An IS victory was preferable to a Syrian Kurdish one. Turkish objections to supporting the Syrian Kurds were based first on the fact that the PYD/YPG were an extension of the Turkish PKK, a relationship the Syrian Kurds do not dispute. The PYD/YPG’s sudden ascendancy took everyone by surprise, including Turks and Iraqi Kurds, who had expected Syrian Kurds to come under their influence. The PKK had for years trained the YPG to transform them into an effective fighting force. American support for the YPG, the Turks feared, would therefore legitimize the PKK.
The second reason for Turkish alarm was the memory of the Iraqi Kurdish experience. The Turks established cordial relations and strong economic ties with the Iraqi Kurdish federated state after 1991, while opposing the independence of the Kurdistan Regional Government, KRG. Still, at the very beginning of the Iraqi Kurdish experiment, Turks worried that American support for Iraqi Kurds fleeing Saddam would ultimately extend a layer of legitimacy to the Kurdish endeavor and rekindle region-wide Kurdish aspirations. Hence, history would repeat itself in Syria as American support today, the Turks feared, will translate into another Kurdish statelet a la the KRG down the road—but with a difference. The difference is that Turkish Kurds are far more influenced by developments in Rojava, as northern Syria is called, than in northern Iraq, precisely because the PYD/YPG are products of the PKK’s reflected prowess.
The U.S. collaboration with the Syrian Kurds was not strategic at first. It was a response to tactical developments; the Islamic State having swept through Mosul and other territories in Iraq, not to mention Raqqa in Syria, had dealt the Iraqis a significant defeat and had captured sizeable quantities of brand new American military equipment. When IS decided to invade Kobani they brought up much of this captured Iraqi materiel to the war, thereby providing the U.S. military with an opportunity to destroy much of it. It is only after Kobani that the idea of going after the Islamic State in Syria and Raqqa in partnership with the YPG—as the only effective anti-IS force on the ground—gained acceptance in Washington. What started as a tactical decision was transformed into a strategic one by events—not for the first time, and probably not for the last.
Into the Future
According to a Spring 2017 Pew poll, U.S. approval in Turkey stands at around 18 percent (with a 79 percent disapproval rating). Since 2002 that number has never hovered above 25 percent. Even more striking is that only 13 percent of Turks have a positive perception of U.S. ideas and customs while 82 percent disapprove—the worst score for any of the countries surveyed by Pew. Similarly, 72 percent of Turks feel threatened by U.S. power and influence—up from 44 percent in 2013 and again the worst score among nations surveyed. To put these results in perspective, note that, as an earlier German Marshall Fund attitudes survey pointed out, Turks tend to have negative views of everyone save for Azerbaijanis.
The highly visible U.S. global role and the dominant conspiratorial atmosphere in Turkey help account for the low U.S. ratings. While this may not be different from many other countries, what makes Turkey unique among formal American allies is that its government-controlled media is spearheading anti-American opinions. These sentiments are shared by many in the opposition and society; still, a longstanding NATO-ally government’s role in intensifying it is extraordinary.
There is a qualitative difference, too, in the atmosphere in Turkey today compared to only a few years ago. While a populist-authoritarian Erdogan appears to have all the institutional requisites for a long-term hegemonic power base in place and conveys a great deal of self-confidence, the fact of the matter is that he perceives himself as the aggrieved and besieged party. This is all about the “Big Man” who has no affinity for democratic values but is adaptable; the resurgence of Islam is but one tool in his quiver that is deployed to deflect criticism in a pious society. The dubious win in the April 2017 constitutional referendum stands as a great failure considering that it was held under conditions most favorable to him. The opposition to his domestic agenda is far larger than he had anticipated. Hence his drive to institutionalize his personal rule has intensified with the introduction of new school curricula and bent reinterpretations of history.
While he has faced real challenges, from the 2007 military memorandum to the corruption scandals to the attempted coup d’état, he has always managed to extricate himself by taking the fight to his opponents. He refuses to go on the defensive; by attacking his opponents, real and imagined, he succeeds in turning the tables on them. These are the same tactics he has deployed against Europe as well; when the Dutch government refused Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu the right to land in Rotterdam for a campaign rally in support of the constitutional referendum, he remarkably said that “not even in the Nazi era had there been such policies”; Erdogan called the Dutch government “Nazi remnants.”
This appears to be his modus operandi with America, as well. Although he and his partisans know only too well that the U.S. government had no role in the botched coup, this has not stopped the Turkish government from blaming Washington for it anyway. It is his way of putting pressure for the extradition of Gülen, the return of Zarrab and a Halk Bank vice president also detained in New York on a similar Iran sanctions case. Zarrab alone, were he to face trial, could reveal embarrassing if not damaging details concerning the Turkish government’s activities. The stakes have grown of late as former Turkish Economy Minister Zafer Çaglayan and the Halk Bank president have also been indicted in absentia as part of the same case.
Moreover, there are hundreds of former Turkish military officers in the United States (as well as in Europe) who have sought asylum and refused orders to return home to face certain imprisonment. Erdogan would like every single one of these handed over, along with other dissidents, journalists, NGO activists, and others who also have sought refuge from Turkey’s recidivist authoritarianism. Turkey has also arrested several Americans or dual nationals—the exact number is unknown to outsiders—including a pastor, a NASA scientist, and a Turk who is a 37-year employee of the U.S. State Department. The pastor, for instance, has been accused of membership in an armed organization, a euphemism for Gülen, and in the CIA; some government-controlled newspapers have even claimed that he participated in the 2016 coup. Congress and U.S. officials fear that Erdogan is using them as hostages to exchange for those he would like to see returned to Turkey. These detainees, plus the events surrounding the beating of American protestors in front of the Turkish Ambassador’s residence in Washington by Erdogan’s security guards, has dissipated much vestigial goodwill for Turkey in the U.S. capital.
Beyond the dynamics of domestic politics that provide a convenient if not fertile ground for America bashing, the differences over Syria potentially represent a far more difficult and dangerous possibility for relations to deteriorate significantly. The negative atmospherics only help accentuate the problem. If, after the fall of Raqqa, Washington continues its cooperation with the Syrian Kurds, albeit in a diminished but still significant capacity, then Ankara will be faced with a dilemma. It has signaled anticipatory displeasure by considering the purchase of a Russian S-400 anti-aircraft system that is incompatible with NATO defense infrastructure and would require large numbers of Russians to serve in Turkey to install and help operate (and also build additional ones in a co-production agreement), thereby potentially exposing alliance secrets to a hostile power. On the other hand, with its air force and navy depleted of experienced officers and especially of F-16 fighter pilots, Turkey is in dire need of American assistance to rebuild its military. One source of concern for the U.S. government is the character of the new Turkish military; purged of its pro-American and pro-NATO officers, the new officer cadres are far more subject to the whims of Erdogan, and thus their loyalty is likely to be the leader and not the institution. In sum, the purge, including of the military, is part of the effort to capture the state. In this, he has succeeded.
Turkey does live in an unpleasant if not dangerous neighborhood. Ankara’s options are limited; it can continue the status quo, that is, the verbal assaults on the United States all the while it cooperates with and depends on its ally for critical undertakings—including nuclear deterrence. To date, the cost of this policy has been relatively low. Neither the Obama nor the Trump Administrations have been particularly critical of Turkey’s egregious violations of fundamental human rights, press freedoms, and unwarranted and wanton hostility directed at the United States. This precedes the 2016 failed coup attempt, and it is a record that probably led Erdogan to think he could bash the United States for the coup without much risk.
Raising the stakes, as he has been threatening almost on a daily basis, Erdogan could decide to preempt the Syrian Kurds by intervening militarily in Syria after Raqqa falls and the U.S. military removes some of its support and combat teams from the area. This is a highly risky strategy that could easily backfire, especially if any of the remaining Americans were to be caught in the crossfire. Moreover, the Turks encountered difficulties in an earlier limited operation, Euphrates Shield, designed to clear Syrian insurgents from territory stretching from the Turkish border to al-Bab, thus also separating Syrian Kurdish cantons from each other. While achieving their goals, Turkish forces nonetheless suffered significant casualties. The YPG is a far more formidable force operating mostly in its own territory and is likely to inflict much higher casualties, especially on an army reeling from the post-coup purges and that has all it can handle fighting the domestic PKK insurgency. There is also the risk of inflaming Kurdish sentiments at home, especially since Kurdish political activity is suffering from a political cum security onslaught that has decimated the legal Kurdish political party. The People’s Democracy party, HDP, has seen its leadership jailed, members of parliament ejected from their seats, and thousands incarcerated.
Erdogan’s primary fear is that the Syrian Kurds, having fought well, received American backing and increasingly also Russian support, will emerge from the crisis in Syria with concrete gains. This is why the U.S. special envoy for the region, Bret McGurk, has been savaged in the Turkish media; he is perceived to be the person with all the secret anti-Turkish plans in his pocket. The Rojava Kurds have made it clear that they, too, seek some form of autonomy, preferably a federation, at least as expansive as that enjoyed in the KRG. Whether they succeed will very much depends on the residual strength of the Syrian regime and willingness of the Iranians and Russians to continue fighting for Assad.
In the short term, it is likely that some arrangement recognizing their distinct identity will materialize. Erdogan has to calculate whether or not a Turkish military intervention would prevent such an eventuality or speed its realization. Turkey is far more isolated in the region now than before; at the heyday of Turkish influence circa 2010, Erdogan walked on water. Now, the Saudis, Gulf Arabs, and Egyptians are furious over his support to Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood. Improving ties with Iran is not a panacea fundamentally because the new Turkish state remains a Sunni construction that views the Shi‘a and their offshoots with suspicion.
Turkey’s best option for the time being is to do what is already doing: reinforcing the territory it holds in Syria. It is bringing in civilian and military cadres along with equipment to consolidate its position, make sure the two parts of Syrian Kurdistan do not link up. While this works in the short term by postponing a crisis with the U.S. government, it risks becoming hostage to Syrian internal quarrels and thus to future violence.
Finally, how would the Trump Administration react to a Turkish intervention? Would the Turks threaten the U.S. military by denying access to bases in their territory, including to Incirlik? A sign that relations were hitting a new low occurred when the Turkish official news agency, Anadolu Agency, revealed and identified many secret bases the U.S. military had built in Syria. Not only would Anadolu Agency not have access to such information unless it was deliberately leaked to by Turkish officials, it certainly would not have published information that potentially put the lives of Americans (and some French) at risk without authorization from the top levels of the Turkish government.
Can American strategic patience last? Should it? In Europe, which has far stronger economic ties with Turkey, a blowback has started in the form of a decline in tourists visiting Turkey and deteriorating business attitudes. Germany has issued a travel warning for its citizens visiting Turkey. Could the U.S. government do without Turkey, not just for a while but more or less permanently? The importance of Turkish territory for military operations derives from the fact that other NATO countries can deploy there if necessary. Recent German-Turkish acrimony on whether German parliamentarians could visit their servicemen led the Germans to withdraw their air assets from Incirlik. Washington could manage without Incirlik, as it has in the past, but it would be costlier. Equally important are other bases that serve as liaison for American troops deployed or deployable in several extant and potential combat theaters.
Will the U.S.-Turkish relationship revert back to its old “alliance of convenience” mold once some of these current issues are resolved, or has it reached a tipping point of no return? By tipping point I do not mean a temporary break, but an operational downgrading of relations that allows Washington to push back on Turkish demands, complaints, and attacks. Erdogan’s rhetoric may point to a break with the West and a “let’s go on our own” attitude, but the fact of the matter is that he knows that is not realistic as Turkish economic, political, and military ties with the United States and the West cannot be undone except at great harm to core Turkish interests.
Flirting with Russia may play into the fantasies of some ultra-nationalists in Turkey but it remains a behemoth that when offered the opportunity is quite willing to throw its weight around, now more so with Putin. The Turks should have discovered Putin’s determination when he helped Damascus turn the tide on the opposition and imposed immediate and painful sanctions when the Turks shot down a Russian jet fighter that strayed into Turkish territory. Within weeks, the Ankara leadership, which had heralded the downing as a demonstration of Turkish prowess, was apologizing and back-pedaling dizzyingly fast by incredulously putting the blame on Gülenist pilots acting on orders from Pennsylvania. On Syrian Kurds, were the U.S. government to completely abandon Syria, Putin could through Assad or directly provide the PYD sufficient political support to frustrate Ankara. There is even less Erdogan can do to affect Russian behavior than he can with Washington.
Turkish apprehensions about U.S. alignment with the PYD/YPG are understandable, but it is Erdogan who eschewed opportunities by breaking off the peace talks with the PKK and declaring Syrian Kurds the enemy. Unwilling to appreciate American determination to defeat IS, he presumed that his vociferous objections, threats, and attacks would, as in the past, cause the Americans to rethink their strategy. Erdogan may still harbor hopes that Trump will see things his way, but the likelihood of such a development is receding primarily because of American domestic politics and Trump’s need for a tangible victory of some sorts against IS. By antagonizing the U.S. government on the PYD question, he has made it more difficult for Washington to abandon the Syrian Kurds, something Washington has repeatedly done with other Kurds in the past.
Paradoxically, a somewhat stiffened American resolve is the best chance to salvage the Turkish-American relationship and reset the balance. This is needed first and foremost to deter Erdogan or others in Turkey from undertaking actions that would certainly create irreparable damage to the relationship. The temptation to invade Syria, especially if domestic conditions were to sour on him, could be compelling for Erdogan, causing him to miscalculate. It would be foolish to think that the two could be equals; the United States as a superpower with global interests will always have a different perspective than Turkey. Erdogan, on the other hand, is in the process of constructing a different Turkey; one that is personalistic, far more ideological and unwilling to accept the American primus inter pares system that existed before. Be that as it may, if Turkey is to remain in NATO it will have to fulfil its membership obligations. In that sense, it is no different than Italy or Britain, or Hungary for that matter. Washington may want to learn from the Russians; Erdogan does respond to the careful application of pressure. What is needed is a continuation of “strategic patience” but with a necessary added element of forcefulness and directness hitherto absent in the American posture to make sure he understands the limits to errant behavior.