Foreign Policy

How US-Turkey relations have gone from bad to worse


One year after the failed coup attempt of July 15, Turkish relations with the U.S. have gone from uneasy and challenging to difficult and strained; a return to the halcyon days of warm relations soon is unlikely, in part because such days rarely if ever existed.  

Accusations of U.S. and European support for the putschists, disagreement over how to fight ISIS in northern Syria (particularly the role of the Kurdish fighters of the YPG), allegations of Turkish intel services support for anti-Assad Islamist fighters, and most recently the breaking of relations by many Arab states with Qatar, etc. have intensified the perception that Turkey lies outside the North Atlantic community, wants it that way, and cares little for shared NATO/EU values of democratic pluralism.

Soon after the failed coup attempt, conspiracy theorists put forth several narratives, but the two of lasting effect were that it was a false flag operation engineered by President Erdogan himself and the second was that is was directed by Fethullah Gulen with the blessing or even active support of the U.S. — neither narrative’s assertions bears serious scrutiny.  

The allegations of U.S. and foreign direction of the putsch came from supporters of the president’s party and even senior members of his government. When the Obama administration and subsequently the Trump administration made clear that the extradition request for Fethullah Gulen would be handled as a judicial not a political matter, Turkish government attitude against the U.S. hardened.

{mosads}Erdogan and many of his supporters, unfamiliar with the concept of a free press or an independent judiciary, find it hard to believe that Gulen cannot be handed over as an accused terrorist in a way similar to the post-9/11 rendition practices.  This refusal to hand over Gulen continues to strain relation, regardless of whether Erdogan really wants Gulen in Turkey or simply enjoys having another pretext for accusing the U.S. of an unfriendly attitude towards and unfair treatment of Turkey.

Another ongoing irritant is the U.S. support for the YPG fighters of the Kurdish Syrian political group the PYD.  For Turkey, U.S. support for the YPG as operational allies in the anti-ISIS campaign equals support for the separatists Kurdish insurgents of the PKK, a group the U.S. has designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization and against whom the U.S. has assisted Turkish Armed forces with surveillance and other means.  This irritation is likely to increase as the anti-ISIS activity shifts from Iraq to Syria following the fall of Mosul to Iraqi forces.  

As Iraqis Kurds reduce their contributions to the anti-ISIS campaign in Iraq, one must expect that they will increase their support to Syrian Kurds in northern Syria who seek to establish a Kurdish dominated region there on both sides of the Euphrates linked to confreres north of the border in Turkey.  The government of Turkey and its armed forces oppose this Kurdish effort to connect several enclaves into a contiguous region — and have demonstrated their opposition through military action.  U.S. protests to Turkey that the Kurds with whom it works will not be allowed to collude with PKK affiliates ring false to Turkish ears and strain credulity.

Not dissimilarly, press reports of the Turkish intelligence agency having supplied arms to anti-Assad Islamists and having facilitated their movements through Turkey to Syria raise concerns among NATO Allies that Turkey inadvertently or knowingly assisted ISIS foreign fighters to reach the battlefields in Syria and even Iraq.  The arrest of Turkish journalists who wrote or published the story only deepens the concern that Turkish intel operatives are playing a risky game, supporting anti-Assad forces without vetting the recipients of support to ensure no ISIS or al-Qaeda affiliated groups benefit.  

Most importantly for U.S.-Turkish relations, it raises questions about how much counter-terrorist information can be shared with this NATO ally — more strain.  

The current kerfuffle between Saudi Arabia and other Arabs states on one side and Qatar on the other provided an opportunity for both the U.S. and Turkey to work together as honest brokers to mediate a solution to the diplomatic conflict.  Instead, President Trump initially indicated strong support for Saudi action and Turkey lined up on the side of Qatar.  While Secretary Tillerson seeks to restore the U.S. to a balanced approach, endorsing mediation efforts and calling for face-to-face meetings, Erdogan suggests that the Saudis accept the presence of a Turkish military base 100 years after the Arab uprising forced Ottoman/Turkish troops out of the Arabian Peninsula. The two NATO allies with the largest number of personnel under arms find themselves on opposite sides of another political issue.  

Apparently, Turkey, or at least President Erdogan, doesn’t care. In a BBC interview, he expressed his confidence that Turkey “was able to stand on its own two feet” and doesn’t need others, in particular the EU, further implying that the EU needs Turkey more than Turkey needs the EU. It is also likely that Erdogan believes the U.S. needs Turkey more than Turkey needs the U.S., and by extension, NATO.

But which country actually needs the other more?  For example, does the U.S. need access to Incirlik and other Turkish air bases to pursue anti-ISIS operations in Syria?  Will it continue to have that need as Iraqi forces extend control and stability in Iraq?  If Putin reins in Assad and cooperates with the U.S. to end fighting in Syria, does that further reduce the need for use of Turkish bases?

One year after the coup attempt, the volume and frequency of conspiracy theory rhetoric against the U.S. has lessened, but relations between the U.S. and Turkey will not soon, if they ever were, become easy and close.  

Turkey’s current leadership has chosen a path that diverges from that of the North Atlantic community, not only as an electoral tactic in appealing to the deep reservoir of Turkish nationalism and suspicion of “the other” but because the current leaders of Turkey are strongly anti-Western. What to do? The U.S. should acknowledge the importance it attaches to a positive and mutually beneficial working relationship with Turkey but not buy into the false narrative that the U.S. needs Turkey more than vice-versa.  

And, as as Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian behavior will allow, it should follow the advice of the best sports coaches: Criticize in private, praise in public.

Edward Stafford is a retired foreign service officer; he served in political-military affairs at the State Department, as a diplomat with the U.S. embassy in Turkey, and taught at the Inter-American Defense College.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.


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