Strained relations, yes, but US and Turkey need each other

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Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan received congratulations from many countries for his recent electoral victory. The United States was not one of them. U.S.-Turkey relations have frayed over the past several years, although they mend softly with loose stitches, which then get ripped again, locking both in a “frenemy” cycle — an apt term to describe the two countries’ relations in the 21st century. The truth is that both need each other for respective strategic reasons and interests. However, strained relations have gotten in the way of the United States delivering F-35 fighter jets, more than a hundred, that Turkey purchased (and paid for) from Lockheed Martin.

In a bipartisan move, some members of Congress are trying to stop the delivery of the jets. The reason? Mainly because Turkey has imprisoned American Presbyterian minister Andrew Brunson for over a year now, and some in Congress allege that Turkey wants to hold him hostage in exchange for the U.S. extradition of the Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen, who is living in exile in Pennsylvania. Turkey wants Gulen extradited to face justice; he is accused of masterminding the July 2016 coup attempt against Erdogan. So far, the United States has refused to extradite Gulen.

{mosads}There are other political reasons behind this Congress-based call for ceasing the F-35 deliveries to Turkey. Russia’s access to Turkey’s shiny new, U.S.-manufactured F-35 jets is seen as a serious threat to national security “secrets” being disclosed to Putin, with whom Turkey has grown closer. The Syrian civil war has created strange bedfellows. Plus, Turkey is purchasing Russia’s S-400 air defense system, which is another reason for U.S. angst.


Going further back, the rise of Erdogan and his AKP Islamist-leaning party in traditionally secular Turkey has been cause for alarm in the West. Erdogan has politically maneuvered domestic laws and policies to empower his position and expand presidential powers. His actions resemble autocratic tendencies, which are clearly threats to Turkish democracy. Erdogan’s regional and global foreign policies have raised alarms in the West as well.

Impacts from the Syrian civil war have changed configurations of the region’s alliances and interests of various actors. Some of these impacts directly affect Turkey, including an influx of refugees, trafficking of weapons and people over the borders, the rise in ISIS and PKK terrorist attacks, and Syrian and Russian military confrontations that ultimately have led to a détente between Turkey, Russia and Iran (the Syrian regime’s benefactor and supporter).

Turkey also has sided with and supported Qatar in the Persian Gulf Arab states’ (i.e., the Gulf Cooperation Council) internal spat leading to Qatar being ostracized and blockaded by the others. In addition, Western powers are upset with Erdogan’s pro-Palestinian — and specifically, pro-Gaza — support, upsetting Turkish-Israeli relations. Furthermore, Turkey has jailed countless activists and journalists. According to Amnesty International, more than a hundred journalists remain in Turkish jails since the 2016 coup attempt, and more crackdowns on the news media continue to take place.

With all that said, there are compelling reasons why the United States continues to hold on to the tethers of U.S.-Turkey relations, and vice versa. The United States has military interests, bases and lucrative arms sales involving Turkey. Turkey’s NATO membership is crucial for Western interests and agendas pertaining to the Middle East, the Caucasus, Central Asia, South Asia and even parts of the Far East. Turkey is geographically quite literally the gateway to the East.  Losing Turkey would mean losing access to, and perhaps indirect influence mechanisms towards, the Middle East and farther East. These are important strategic factors and interests for NATO and the United States.

Moreover, U.S.-Turkey relations include trade and economic activities. According to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, Turkey constitutes the 32nd largest trading partner with the United States, “with $17.4 billion in total (two-way) goods trade during 2016,” while trade in services between both totaled about $5 billion.

For Turkey, the United States is important for Gulen’s extradition, its longstanding support for Turkey’s aspirations for European Union membership, trade and economic relations, and for keeping Kurdish militias in Iraq and Syria in check. Turkey’s NATO membership also is invaluable for its own interests, especially for having the luxury of invoking the NATO Article 5 collective defense pact, which states that an attack on one NATO member is an attack on all, and authorizes NATO members to respond collectively to the attack. Turkey needs this “red button” security support, because it lives in a tough neighborhood and faces numerous national security threats.

The congressional call for stopping the F-35 deliveries to Turkey might not succeed. The United States and Turkey might spar with disagreements and even very public disputes, but they are strategically in need of each other. No one is more aware of that than they. Scholar and journalist Stephen Kinzer describes the U.S.-Turkey relationship as follows: “For decades, Turkey was widely viewed as a reliable NATO ally: prickly at times, but safely in America’s corner.”

Hayat Alvi, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the Naval War College. She previously served as assistant professor of political science at American University in Cairo, and as director of the international studies program at Arcadia University. She specializes in international relations, political economy, comparative politics with regional expertise in Middle East and North Africa and South Asia, and Islamic studies. She is proficient in Arabic and Urdu.

[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]

Tags Andrew Brunson Fethullah Gülen Kurdistan Workers' Party Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Turkey–United States relations

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