3 Biggest Issues for U.S.-Turkey Relations


Editor’s Note: WOTR asked four Turkey specialists to identify and explain the three biggest issues facing the U.S.-Turkish bilateral relationship. Here are their answers:

Bill Park

BParkIraq and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG): The United States is arming Baghdad, risking that these capabilities might be used against the pro-U.S. KRG.  The United States is also failing to embrace the closeness of the energy relationship between Turkey and the KRG, still its two best friends in the region; and continues to act as though Iraq under Maliki is viable and likely to stabilize – it isn’t and won’t. KRG autonomy is here to stay and sectarian conflict is in Arab Iraq to stay.

Syria: Both the United States and Turkey have been mistaken in their belief that any alternative to the Assad regime is preferable. In fact, few realistic alternatives are preferable. A Sunni dominated regime is likely to turn on Syria’s Christians, Kurds, secularists, Alawites and other minorities. Worse, it might be Islamist and anti-Western too. America may not remain by Turkey’s side if it continues promote Islamists in the battle against Damascus should Assad survive. It might be necessary to deal with Assad and/or a Ba’athist regime again. Should the Sunni opposition to Assad win, the United States should brace itself to have to deal with a besieged Alawite community, a persecuted Christian minority, and a battle between Sunni Arab nationalists and Kurds. Above all, the United States should recognize that the Kurdish issue will continue to destabilize the region so long as Kurdish rights to self-determination or some form of self-governance are denied, and it should desist from simply following Ankara’s generally anti-Kurdish lead on this issue. This applies to Syria’s Kurds too.

Turkish democracy: Erdoğan does not necessarily represent more freedom and democracy for Turkey, but nor does the Gülen movement. The United should not side too closely with any given Turkish leader, but should instead emphasize the need for the rule of law, minority rights, freedom of expression, transparency and good governance, etc. It has recently made the same mistake with Erdoğan that it made with military regimes in the past. The European Union is right to demand more from Turkey, and the United States should more closely align itself with the EU position.

William Park is a Senior Lecturer in the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London. He is a War on the Rocks Contributor.

Go to Page 2 for Michael Koplow’s answers.

Michael Koplow

MKoplowTurkey’s full participation in NATO: Turkey has long valued its membership in NATO, and there is no conceivable circumstance in which it exits the alliance. At the same time, there is frustration building over whether Turkey is truly committed to NATO or only to the extent that it suits Turkey’s immediate interests. This was personified by Turkey’s announcement that it will be buying an anti-missile defense system from China rather than from the U.S. or France, and its insistence that it will integrate the Chinese system with existing NATO systems despite U.S. and NATO warnings that this is both impossible and unacceptable. Coming on the heels of the deployment of NATO Patriot missiles batteries in southeastern Turkey to guard the border with Syria following a request from Ankara, this is perhaps the largest source of tension between the U.S. and Turkey, and one that bears close watching.

The state of Turkish democracy: Closer ties between the United States and Turkey during the past half-decade were predicated on a sense that Turkey was a valuable partner in the region because of its democratic status in a largely non-democratic region of the world. While talk of the “Turkish model” was always overblown and misplaced, it has nevertheless been an influential meme and allowed the United States to talk about a “model partnership” between the two countries and fall into a pattern of relying on Turkey to somehow shape regional outcomes. Prime Minister Erdoğan’s rhetoric, however, has taken an extremely sharp, nationalist, and anti-Western turn in the wake of the Gezi protests and the corruption scandal, and as more journalists are jailed or lose their jobs and as protestors are gassed in the streets of Turkish cities, Turkey’s status as Washington’s favorite democratic Muslim-majority ally is increasingly tenuous.

Backing different partners: In nearly every instance of tension or conflict in the Middle East, the United States and Turkey have backed different sides, which makes policy coordination extremely difficult. Following the military coup in Egypt, the United States elected to deal with the new government while Turkey insisted on backing the deposed Muslim Brotherhood to the point that the Turkish ambassador was expelled from Egypt. In Syria, Turkey backed jihadi opposition groups that the U.S. was loathe to touch. In Iraq, the U.S. has been an unwavering backer of the Maliki government, while until recently Turkey’s relations with the Maliki government were at an all-time low as Turkey backed Maliki’s Sunni rivals and pursued independent relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq at Baghdad’s expense. On the Palestinian front, the U.S. supports the Palestinian Authority as the representative of the Palestinian people while Turkey has spent the past decade cultivating ties with and propping up Hamas. So long as the U.S. and Turkey find themselves on opposite sides of various regional ledgers, problems between the two are bound to crop up.

Michael Koplow is program director of the Israel Institute and an analyst of Middle Eastern politics and U.S. foreign policy in the region. He runs the blog Ottomans and Zionists.

Go to Page 3 for Joshua Walker’s answers.

Joshua Walker

JWalkerInstitutional partners or personal allies: U.S.-Turkish relations have historically been built on the bedrock of strategic security relations articulated in the 1947 Truman Doctrine and Turkey’s 1952 inclusion in NATO. During the Cold War, Ankara’s generals and strong military institutions guaranteed smooth institutional relations with Washington’s bureaucracy that in turn fought its interagency battles largely behind closed doors. Starting with 9/11 and accelerated by the War in Iraq, President Bush and Prime Minister Erdogan’s erratic relationship gave way to a honeymoon with President Obama. Having invested heavily in a personal relationship with Erdogan, the Obama administration has been frustrated by internal divisions on Turkey policy and Ankara’s reluctance to deal institutionally with Washington rather than leader-leader. As Erdogan’s future hangs in the balance compared to Obama’s relatively stable timeline, institutionalizing the personal relationship that has defined U.S.-Turkish relationship will be critical as it is the bureaucracies that have functional authority over technical areas of cooperation. While a “model partnership” has not been realized, given that Turkey is at the center of one of the most critical regions of the world, the investment is well-worth making though the returns are far from certain.

The bilateral relationship in the face of domestic political tumult: As I wrote recently here at War on the Rocks, the unity of the AKP is being challenged from within, to a degree beyond anything in its history. Turkey’s foreign policy and ambitions will, in every respect, be very vulnerable to damage from domestic political battles and upcoming elections.  Whether Washington likes it or not, U.S.-Turkish relations will sustain collateral damage from Ankara’s civil war given that Fethullah Gülen resides in America and is perceived (rightly or wrongly) as being close to the American government. Washington should learn the recent lessons of Egypt, where even supportive statements about the Egyptian political process by the U.S. embassy in Cairo were interpreted by all sides as unacceptable and conspiratorial American interference in Egypt’s internal affairs. Given the extremely dynamic and fluid nature of Turkish politics, rather than being baited into, or even attempting to fully understand, what is going to be a long and messy struggle for the heart and soul of Turkey, Washington should focus on broad-based support for the Turkish people in the short-term and pragmatic dealings with the government over the long-term.

Maintaining a western orientation: Having built and reoriented itself into a 21st century regional power, Turkey aspires be a regional leader just as domestic problems, beginning with Gezi Park and now compounded domestic political battles and corruption charges, complicate Turkey’s large ambitions. Prime Minister Erdogan should resist the urge to turn away from the West.  He should double down on Turkey’s Western orientation through its continued path to European Union membership despite all the acrimony this has involved and focusing on NATO capacity versus building independent capabilities such as the Chinese missile deal announced in 2013.  This would go a long way to strengthening Turkey’s regional standing.

Joshua W. Walker is a Fellow at the Truman National Security Project and previously served as a Senior Adviser to the U.S. Department of State. He is a contributor to War on the Rocks.

Go to Page 4 for Aaron Stein’s answers

Aaron Stein

ASteinThe AKP-Gülen Battle: The current battle between the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the followers of Fethullah Gülen will certainly impact the relationship. Prime Minister Erdoğan’s conspiracy theories chip away at the image of Turkey as a steadfast American ally. In turn, Congress – which has always been more skeptical of Turkey than the Administration (this dynamic isn’t new, by the way) – could make things difficult for issues ranging from arms sales to the potential recognition of the Armenian genocide.

The 100 year anniversary of the Armenian Genocide: The issue will certainly come up in the U.S. Congress. If Turkey continues down the path of blaming the United States for its internal problems, Congress may be less inclined to take Turkey’s certain objections into account. The AKP has failed to tighten ties with Congress during its time in power and the recent turmoil, conspiracy theorizing, etc. has only helped further undermine Turkey’s image in the legislative branch.

Political Uncertainty: The current corruption case has seriously complicated the AKP’s re-election strategy. As allegations continue to swirl, I think that the AKP is likely to announce early national elections after the local elections in March. The campaign will be ugly. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Nationalist Action Party (MHP) will hammer the AKP for corruption and Erdoğan will continue to use the nonsensical argument that dark forces are conspiring to keep Turkey down because “they are afraid of Ankara’s independence” to maintain political support. The United States will be a useful scapegoat for Erdoğan, as he seeks to point to outside forces conspiring against Turkey.

Aaron Stein is an Associate Fellow at RUSI and the nonproliferation program manager at the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies in Istanbul. He runs the blog Turkey Wonk.


Image: White House