The Obama administration has developed an unprecedented level of consultation with Erdogan and his government. The Turkish leadership was particularly hopeful about Obama’s second term, envisioning possibly a free reign to overcome traditional U.S. prejudices in regional diplomacy and more importantly an enforced commitment to ending the bloodshed in Syria and, hopefully, a move to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue. In Washington, Turkey’s realignment with the U.S. particularly after the employment of the missile radar system and Ankara’s decision to side with the Syrian opposition despite Iranian and Russian objections appeared as good news. Today, with Patriot missiles situated in Turkey and unwavering U.S. support for Turkish
defenses, the security cooperation is at a historical height. Yet, this semblance of increased convergence in relations might prove insufficient to hide the underlying divergences in both countries diplomatic agendas.
Issues at stake
Syria has been a manageable disappointment for the Turkish leadership so far, given how promising things appeared in the very beginning when all castles seemed to be falling before the tide of Turkish influence in the region. The Turkish expectation was to swiftly have Assad replaced, who turned himself into a liability against the Turkish plan to transform the region into a zone of economic integration and multicultural coexistence. The Turkish tone was not sectarian, rather populist that aimed at warranting ties with the post-Assad Syria. Yet, Turkey found itself in the midst of regional power rivalries and even worse with an aloof U.S. and, unsurprisingly, disinterested EU who were supposed to be the advocates of democratic aspirations in the region. At the end of the day, not only an early possibility of democratic transition has been lost, but also hopes for a peaceful one were dashed by inaction. Secretary Kerry reportedly advocates an enforced U.S. role. This view will likely be reinforced after meetings in Ankara and subsequent regional capitals of the tour. Yet, the biggest challenge before active engagement is the Obama Administration’s reservations about another “adventure” overseas that would sidetrack the ultimate objective of internal restructuring.
Iraq for different reasons also burdens the relationship. Ankara-Baghdad relations turned sour after Maliki paradoxically perceived the Turkish position to promote consensual politics not only in Iraq, but also in Syria as threatening. At home he shied away from power sharing, abroad he feared yet another Sunni ascendancy. The resultant equation is the U.S.-encouraged Maliki coalesces with Iran and the Baathist Assad. Turkey sided with the KRG and Sunni minority against an “oppressing” Maliki majority bloc, yet acted reservedly not to alienate other Shiite groups. Iran’s policy has been to aggravate
Shiite-Sunnite tensions in Iraq and the region to hedge against its political losses after the Arab Spring. Meanwhile, Turkey’s burgeoning energy and security needs entailed a rapprochement with the KRG, which was earlier advocated by the Americans but went even further than U.S. projections. Overall, for Ankara, the U.S. siding with Maliki in the name of political stability is a faux pas that requires reparation. This is while the U.S. came out vocal in opposing Turkish-KRG cooperation particularly on energy. Maliki’s ties with Ankara seem irreparable and until US pretension about political stability in Iraq ends both sides will continue to differ on Iraqi affairs.
Turkish-Israeli relations were suspended but luckily did not deteriorate. The U.S. after a few attempts decided to step aside not to overload an already difficult reconciliation process. The controversy actually cooled down and thanks to both sides’ maturity did not evolve into a structural disconnect. Under current terms, the ground is ripe for a new rapprochement unless the process is politicized by respective domestic audiences.
Such a reconciliation, however, would even further isolate Iran. Tehran chose to stand against a rising Turkish influence in Syria, risking any remaining hope for connecting with the Arab street. Their calculation was to offset Turkey’s empowered ties with Egypt, Tunisia and Libya by a Shiite front stretching from Lebanon to Syria and Iraq. Turkey’s impaired ties with Tel Aviv were in itself an asset for Iran in this power equation. With renewed efforts for reconciliation, Israel’s concern for a rising Islamic tide in the region can be mitigated in consultation with Turkey, who in turn can bridge the gap between Israel and the Islamists.
Yet, the U.S. should not misread the new regional dynamics to expect Turkey and Iran openly confront each other. A war of attrition between two has historically been discredited. And under current circumstances both sides will limit their tactical moves once that touches sensitive territory. That sensitive territory is any intervention in their respective domestic issues. In Iran national political arena has never restored the self-confidence it enjoyed before June 2009 and the incoming elections will be a critical attempt to reunite the embattled factions under the Supreme Leader’s authority. For Turkey, the ongoing reconciliatory talks with the Kurdish groups is also critical for lowering the heightened security risks after what has transpired in Syria.
On the bilateral menu, Kerry should be ready to face growing demands from the Turkish side for broadened economic cooperation. With President Obama’s “State of the Union” push for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), Ankara will feel the heat hereafter. Since Turkey has Customs Union with the EU, she will be entailed to open up its market to the US without any reciprocal move by the American side.
Against the backdrop of contracting Middle Eastern market in a region immersed in chaos, Turkey is blocked from the Arab hinterland and is in dire need of new and secure markets with a burgeoning economy. Moreover, the U.S. and EU unilateral sanctions are hindering possible expansion of trade with Iran. Therefore, an American commitment to engage economically will be timely to secure Turkey’s stability, invigorate its Western orientation and will prove a vital link for the West with the broader neighborhood.
The Arab Spring has revealed the limits of American power and challenged Turkey’s Middle East policy. Ankara, however, has recalibrated its regional policy and is now poised to play a regional leadership role to help influence the trajectory of politics in the new Middle East. Despite divergences in their diplomatic agendas, Turkey and the US have a vested interest in the democratic transformation of the countries like Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria and
potential others as the uprisings demanding democracy, equality and freedom spread throughout the region. Washington and Ankara should deepen the bilateral relations established by President Obama and Prime Minister Erdogan in an effort to support the emergence of a more democratic Middle East. In a region where U.S.’s traditional allies in the Middle East are marginalized and democratic transformations have brought populist governments more likely to reflect the anti-Western ethos of their people than the previous authoritarian regimes, Turkey stands to be the U.S.’s only partner with enough clout to play a constructive role.
Aras is the director of Ankara's Center for Strategic Research. He is also a Public Policy fellow at the Wilson Center and head of the Center for Strategic
Research in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Turkey.
Yorulmazlar is a non-resident fellow at SAIS Foreign Policy Institute.