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Doomed to fail: The decline of American-Turkish relations

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America’s relations with Turkey seem destined to fail. Even when Turkish ministers make the 5,400 mile journey from Ankara to Washington, they seem unable to patch things up. 

Take for example Turkish Prime Minister Benali Yildirim’s recent visit. He came to the American capital to smooth over a rift which led to the suspension of non-immigrant visa applications by both countries. This was caused by Turkey’s arrest and detention of a U.S. consulate employee under spurious charges relating to last year’s coup attempt. 

Just as Yildirim was making the diplomatic rounds, news broke of an alleged plot involving Michael Flynn, President Trump’s former national security advisor forced to resign for his undocumented contacts with Russia, to kidnap Fetullah Gulen. Turkey accuses Gulen, a Turkish Islamic preacher and Pennsylvania resident of orchestrating last year’s coup attempt. Turkey vehemently denied it was part of such an attempt, but no doubt the story soured Yildirim’s meeting with Vice President Mike Pence.

{mosads}Yildirim’s travels to the U.S. followed that of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who was given a mere 22 minutes of President Donald Trump’s time. Erdogan’s attempt to resolve outstanding issues were not only unsuccessful, but he left relations in a worse state after video footage showed Erdogan’s personal bodyguards beating the proverbial out of mainly peaceful protesters. 


Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu also visited Washington in September, but is only remembered for his prison meeting with two of the bodyguards involved in the aforementioned brawl rather than his diplomatic appointments. 

The sad reality is that even one hundred visits by Turkish politicians cannot put relations back together again.

The extradition of Gulen, the future of U.S. personnel and citizens detained in Turkey, Ankara’s down payment for Russian S-400s, Turkey’s leaking of U.S. positions in Syria, Washington’s support for the Kurdish Syrian People’s Protection Units (YPG), and the explosive case against Reza Zarrab, the Turkish-Iranian businessman under arrest facing trial for circumventing sanctions against Iran, are all symptoms rather than the causes of the declining relations between the two countries. After all, one could argue that Turkey has just as many reasons for falling out with Russia as it does the US. 

Russia has also supported the YPG which Turkey claims is affiliated to the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party and Moscow has consistently backed President Bashar al-Assad who Ankara insists should step down as Syrian President. Russia was also muted about the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government’s independence referendum to which Ankara was bitterly opposed. Yet ties between Ankara and Moscow continue to blossom.

This is because Turkish-U.S. relations have outlived their usefulness. For Washington, Turkey was once a bulwark in the West’s fight against communism. After 9/11, Turkey became a vital ally in the war on terror and an example of moderate Islam that was compatible with democracy and even hailed as a model for developing countries to follow. However, this changed after the 2013 Gezi park protests were brutally supressed by the AKP government while Erdogan intensified his authoritarian inclinations. Moreover, the Turkish-U.S. relationship of yesteryear was one where Turkey was the junior partner in a western alliance. Now, however, Turkey views itself as a regional or even global superpower in its own right. 

Underlying these illusions, or indeed delusions, of Turkish power is the country’s history. The successor of the Ottoman Empire, which played the game of great power politics until its defeat during World War I, Turkish officials consider a resurgent Turkey an important world power. And with U.S. continuing to withdraw from the Middle East, Turkey believes it is a contender to fill the void.

Turkey reasons that not only does it have one of NATO’s largest standing armies, but it is also an emerging economic powerhouse with an array of hard and soft power tools at its disposal including its important geographic location, the potential to be an energy hub, diverse trade relations, and its cultural affinity to its neighbouring regions.

Turkey attempts to assert regional influence at every turn. Ankara set up military bases as far afield as Qatar and Somalia. It has intervened in Syria and wishes to involve itself in nearly every Middle east crisis from the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to the rift between Iran and Saudi Arabia, especially after the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, most probably under duress from his Saudi patrons.

Russia has shown respect for Turkish ambitions. It brought Turkey into the table during the Astana talks over the future of Syria. Moscow even postponed a meeting about the future of Syria due to be held in November out of respect for Turkish objections because of the presence of the PYD/PYG.

Russia gets that Ankara believes that its power and status demands that the world should listen when it speaks, and panders to Turkish delusions of grandeur. Unless Washington does the same, relations are doomed to fail.

Dr. Simon A. Waldman (@SimonWaldman1) is a Mercator-IPC fellow at the Istanbul Policy Center and a visiting research fellow at King’s College London. He is the coauthor of the recently published, “The New Turkey and Its Discontents” (Oxford University Press: 2017).

Tags Donald Trump Foreign relations of Turkey Mike Pence Politics of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Turkey

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