Repairing the U.S.-Turkish Alliance


Turkish-American relations have declined considerably following the failed coup attempt on July 15. The Turkish government accused the United States of failing to show solidarity with a NATO ally. Turkey’s ruling party, the AKP, has hinted that global forces control international terrorism. Allied news outlets have printed crazy conspiracy theories about alleged Western involvement in the coup attempt.

Turkey blamed Fetullah Gulen, a Turkish imam living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, for planning the coup, and has demanded his extradition, but formally for charges that pre-date the putsch. Turkey views American pronouncements about the rule of law as politically motivated and an example of American hypocrisy. The tensions surrounding Gulen and Turkey’s use of anti-Americanism to put pressure on the U.S. government have prompted discussions about the U.S.-Turkish relationship — and whether it is worth all the recent tensions.

The failed coup attempt in has challenged a number of assumptions about Turkey. Ankara has never been an easy ally to work with, but most presumed that the country was political stable, despite the on-going terrorist threat countrywide and insurgency in the Kurdish majority southeast. The failed coup suggests that Turkish politics are unstable, with key institutions fractured and divided. This status is likely to endure, owing to the continuing efforts to purge Gulenists from state institutions and the Turkish economy. Despite the challenges, the United States has an incentive to rebuild institutional relationships with the Turkish government, both as a means to deepen counter-terrorism cooperation and to retain links to various state institutions undergoing a purge of personnel.

Turkey as a Strategic Ally: Looking Beyond Incirlik

Turkey’s strategic importance to the United States has declined since the end of the Cold War. This due to two developments that deceptively appear contradictory: the decline of the Soviet military threat followed by the Russian military’s adoption of anti-access/anti-denial systems that negate the advantages of large bases in the region.  Incirlik Air Force base is vital for the current war against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) but less so for NATO defense planning in Eastern Europe from the Russian threat, largely because the base would come under missile attack in the opening hours of any conflict with the West. Concerns about Russia’s offensive and air defense missile capabilities have prompted new American thinking about fighting wars in a contested air environment and the viability of large, vulnerable air bases during times of conflict with a near peer adversary. The United States, as argued in War on the Rocks, would be better served by developing strategies for the defense of Europe from air bases on the western edge of the continent, outside of the range of Russian intermediate range missiles. Still, the Turkish Navy remains an important component of Black Sea defense planning and Ankara is a signatory to the Montreux Convention, which governs the transit of naval ships through the Turkish Straits.

Despite the missile threat, Turkey will remain an important actor for a range of American interests, for both Central Command (CENTCOM) and European Command (EUCOM). EUCOM has worked with Turkey for decades and, therefore, is better attuned to Turkish sensitivities about a range of defense related issues. Looking beyond the ISIL conflict, Turkey will remain important for American naval projection in the Eastern Mediterranean, an area that has grown in importance now that Russia has increased its naval presence there. CENTCOM has had difficulties working with Turkey, stemming from tensions related to the U.S. led invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Turkish parliament’s refusal to grant the United States permission to invade northern Iraq forced last minute changes to the battle plan and put American soldiers entering and then operating in the north in greater danger.

This institutional anger persists in the U.S. military and was reinforced this past year after Turkey refused to open Incirlik and Diyarbakir Air Force bases for strike and combat search and rescue missions (CSAR) for close to ten months. The negotiations placed an added burden on American pilots, who were forced to fly from more distant bases in the Persian Gulf and, importantly, made CSAR coverage more difficult, once again placing American service men and women at greater risk. Turkey also was the primary conduit and logistics hub for foreign fighters joining ISIL — the enemy the U.S. military was tasked to defeat and degrade.

The disagreement about Incirlik was a microcosm for divergence about Syria policy. At the tactical level, the two sides support different sub-state actors: Ankara has gravitated towards Islamist groups, including Ahrar al-Sham, an on the ground ally of Syria’s rebranded al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. The United States, in contrast, works closely with the Kurdish-majority Democratic Union Party (PYD), whose militia, the YPG, is the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) — an insurgent group currently fighting an insurgency against the Turkish armed forces. More broadly, Turkey has a history of placing restrictions on American flight operations from bases it controls, like Incirlik. EUCOM is more attuned to what will and will not set Turkey off, given its history of working with Ankara in NATO, while CENTCOM has had the advantage of working with Arab governments, most of which place few restrictions on flight operations.

Yet, despite these challenges, Turkey remains important because the United States benefits from access to its territory to project power globally, a fact that gets lost amid the narrow debates about the prosecution of the war against ISIL. Turkey’s strategic value to the United States is that it is a part of an American-led alliance structure that, as noted by Michael O’Hanlon and Gen. David Petraeus, accounts for two-thirds of global economic output and military capacity.

The United States must be wary of allowing the narrowly focused ISIL war to devour its foreign policy and longer-term interests in the region and, as the world’s only superpower, losing sight of the fact that U.S. interests are globally defined and require cooperation from prickly allies, like Turkey. The same is also true for Ankara, who has allowed tensions over Gulen and the PKK to undermine its longer- term interests in maintaining close ties with Washington, the ultimate guarantor of Turkish security and its closest, and perhaps only, ally.

There is room to use these tensions to deepen institutional relationships that would be beneficial for both countries, beginning with institutional outreach to overcome this current period tension.

“Left of Boom”

The resumption of Turkish-PKK hostilities coincided with the decision to open Incirlik and Diyarbakir air bases to American forces. The conflict in Turkey’s southeast subsequently devolved into an urban insurgency. In contrast to the PKK’s traditional strategy of fighting a rural insurgency in the mountainous areas of southeast Turkey, the group relies heavily on an urban youth militia, the YPS, to fight the better-equipped Turkish military in urban centers. The PKK embeds more seasoned fighters with the YPS, some of whom reportedly also spent time in Syria fighting with the YPG. The PKK has also relies heavily on improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to attack Turkish military convoys and police/military linked targets.

The Turkish military has steadily regained territory lost to the YPS/PKK between July and November 2015 and the average number of Turkish soldiers killed in combat dropped from a high of 2.3 killed per day in February 2016 to 1.4 per day in July.  Between July 2015 and mid-August 2016, 656 Turkish security personnel have been killed in 14 months. This total averages out to 1.56 security personal deaths per day, of which 46 percent are caused by IED attacks, according to calculations from data the International Crisis Group compiled along with more recent casualty data from August. The Turkish military relied on heavy weapons in dense urban areas, devastating Kurdish majority cities and displacing hundreds of thousand people. In one video showing the Turkish military’s “breach” of the border town of Nusaybin, Turkish ground forces used an M58 Mine Clearing Line Charge (MICLIC), a vehicle that uses a line charge to destroy mines or IEDS.

The equipment and tactics in this short video are similar to the American experience in Fallujah in 2004, when the U.S. Marine Corp fought one of the bloodiest battles of post-invasion Iraq. The intensity of the Turkish-PKK conflict provides a mechanism for quiet American-Turkish military ties. The U.S. military has been at war in urban environments against determined foes for well over a decade and could offer to train their Turkish counterparts in urban warfare strategies, counter IED tactics, and special operations forces-led counter-insurgency operations, designed to disrupt and target insurgent cells and leaders. Such outreach could help re-establish people-to-people relationships in the Turkish military, an institution under going a large scale purge. As a first step, the United States could approach their Turkish counterparts and invite units for joint urban warfare training  and share the lessons learned from counter-IED operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Manbij Pocket: A Diplomatic Success

This outreach would be concurrent to on-going diplomatic discussions about the future of Syria, including “cleanup” and “hold” operations in the Manbij pocket, the area of ISIL controlled territory. Before the coup attempt, the United States worked for months to assuage Turkish concerns about the military operation to take Manbij from the Islamic State. The ground force, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), is made up primarily of the YPG. The YPG, in turn, rely on air support from a variety of platforms, including drones, A-10s, and allied F-16s based in Turkey. Incirlik was the hub for the planning of the Manbij operation and, eventually, a meeting between Arab, U.S., and Turkish officials to reach a final agreement  for the “holding” of the city once ISIL was defeated. The agreement was designed to assuage Turkish concerns about a heavy Kurdish presence west of the Euphrates, something that Turkey had warned was a “red-line” in the past and would prompt military action. Turkey was, without question, difficult to work with during this time, but it ultimately supported the operation and the American-backed plan.

Earlier this summer, the Turkish military and intelligence agency, according to interviews I conducted, felt that its military operations had severely degraded the PKK — and that the Turkish armed forces were on the precipice of “winning” this latest phase of the decades old conflict. This confidence, however, overlooked reoccurring violence in cities declared clear of the PKK/YPS in cities like Silopi and Van (which had experienced little violence for much of the conflict). This optimism belied the problems within the Turkish officer corps, including planning for a coup amongst elements of the Turkish Air Force and the Second and First Armies. The latter such force remains in charge of the war against the PKK, although its previous commander, Adem Huduti, was allegedly involved in the coup plot, was discharged from the Turkish military, and placed under arrest.

The United States has an incentive to offer continued targeting assistance against PKK leadership in Iraq. It should also continue, in private, to push Turkey to return to peace talks with the PKK — a strategy that Ankara used between 2013 and 2015 to try and resolve this decades old problem. At the same time, the United States must uphold commitments made to Turkey about Syria, including the YPG leaving territory held west of the Euphrates. This includes cooperation on the current operation in Jarablus, a city where both United States and Turkey want to see ISIL defeated and not allow the YPG to take charge. This operation should also include diplomatic efforts to reconcile Arab and Kurdish ambitions in northern Syria to try and prevent longer term intra-ethnic civil war once ISIL is defeated.

Expanding the Conversation

The commander of CENTCOM, Gen. Votel, outlined his concerns that in the post-purge Turkish military, officers that the United States previously worked with may have been implicated in the coup or purged for alleged links to Gulen. Votel’s comments were ill-timed and have since been seized upon as “proof” of American support for the putchists. The accusations in Turkey are ridiculous but point to the extreme distrust of the United States. Moreover, while undiplomatic, Votel’s comments do suggest the broader institutional challenges the U.S. military in particular now faces after such large scale purges in the Turkish military. The United States has an incentive to reach back to their Turkish counterparts, both to try and re-establish trust and to advance its own interests. These contacts, in turn, could be used to build trust and, eventually, give way to broader discussions about civil-military relations in Turkey. The United States — and NATO — has, traditionally, played a secondary role to the European Union in this regard.

Turkey’s accession process has ground to a halt. Relations between Brussels and Ankara have become largely transactional, framed around the problematic refugee deal, which is reportedly on the verge of collapse. These tensions have undermined the E.U.-Turkish relationship and make the prospect of any meaningful progress on Turkey’s accession negotiations remote. The European Union, therefore, cannot be expected to have much leverage or political sway in Ankara in the near future. The United States could fill the void, particularly on civil-military relations and in the reformation of the Turkish military education system. The Turkish government has, in fact, opened the door for such a discussions. Washington could respond to frequent requests from the most senior Turkish officials to show solidarity and offer to assist with the restructuring of a military that Ankara admits was rife with putchists.

Between 2002 and 2014, the European Union and Turkey took a number of steps in this regard, but Ankara’s efforts to subjugate the Turkish officer corps and place it under proper civilian control fell short. Following the military’s role in instigating a closure case against the AKP in the summer of 2008, the party chose to work closely with the Gulen movement to try and purge and then subjugate the officer corps. The AKP survived the closure case, but then oversaw two cases, Ergenekon and Balyoz, that relied heavily on forged evidence alleging a conspiracy to carry out a coup. The officers purged during this period were replaced with many of the officers now accused of being behind the July 15 coup attempt. The Turkish government has proposed steps to increase civilian oversight of the military, including changes that would de-emphasize the previous role of the chief of the general staff, in favor of a greater role for the minister of defense.

This is an opportunity for the United States: Minister of Defense Fikri Isik and his counterpart in the Pentagon, Secretary Ash Carter, have a close personal relationship. The proposed civil military changes in Turkey include the elevation of the minister of defense in the chain of command, including the ability to select his own staff. The three commands — Air, Land, and Sea — will then report directly to the minister, who is in turn serving underneath the president and the prime minister, according to Turkish security analyst Metin Gurcan.

The government hasn’t agreed to or announced the expected changes to the military, reportedly amid continued negotiations about the forthcoming decree. The basic framework, however, is problematic. To date, the proposed measures, as described in the Turkish press, suggest a limited role for the Turkish parliament, and, instead, the restructuring will further consolidate power in the presidency — the central pillar in the AKP’s legislative agenda. The changes also suggest that the government is trying to add more “friendly” civilians to the Supreme Military Council (YAS), the committee that determines military policy and oversees promotions.

The approach, as described in media reports, risks creating resentment amongst Turkish officers, particularly if the promotion process is overly beholden to the ideological outlook of the AKP. The proposed structural changes to the chain-of-command could also pose interoperability challenges for the different branches of the Turkish military, with the commander of each branch reporting individually to the minister of defense and without a military person and a staff tasked with thinking about the goals of the armed forces as whole. Alternatively, each branch could continue to act autonomously, with little civilian oversight. The United States faced interoperability challenges between 1945 and 1986, before changes were made to prioritize interoperability between the different branches of the armed forces and to help with procurement.

The United States should inquire about the role of parliament in these proposed changes and, after learning more, quietly pass on recommendations to the Turkish defense minister — an implicit recognition of his increased role. The recommendations could be based on the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act, and in particular, how the officer promotion process is structured, including the roles played by the executive and legislative branches. The United States could also inquire about work in Turkey on an updated Defense White Paper. The goal would be for the Turkish Defense Ministry to clearly articulate defense policy objectives and how Turkey envisions its longer term cooperation with NATO.

Further still, the United States could also offer assistance with the reformation of Turkish military academies, which, according to Defense Minister Isik, had been undermined by students (presumably Gulenists) cheating on the entrance exam. Following the coup, Turkey closed its military high school schools and has pledged reforms, including the creation of a national defense university. The United States has ample experience with this issue, with the operation of numerous different military academies and universities around the country. U.S. government representatives could ask questions about these proposed changes and, quietly, offer suggestions on legislation and curriculum, based on the operation of the war college system.

The U.S. Commerce Department could also be enlisted in this outreach to engage with their Turkish counterparts about legislative changes that Ankara could make to spur greater American defense cooperation with government-owned defense industries in Turkey. This outreach should also include efforts to explain American export control restrictions to senior Turkish officials. These discussion could help to  quell unhelpful public comments in Turkey about procurement related issues and hollow threats to turn to Russia for future, large-scale, defense purchases. The Commerce-led approach could also seek to engage with Turkey on its long-standing goal of increasing more American investment in Turkey, a goal that requires more Turkish legal reforms to maximize bilateral trade and investment. It also has the benefit of working directly with Turkey’s government procurement agency, which has extensive experience working with western defense firms on a slew of defense projects.

These approaches would, of course, move in tandem to continued State Department outreach to Turkey. State could pursue a dual track, similar to the existing policy: Publicly underscoring the importance of U.S.-Turkey relations, while pointing out human rights abuses in the country. In the case of the latter, the State Department could opt to take a harsher line, particularly when media close to the ruling party incite violence against American citizens, as with the case of Wilson Center academic Henri Barkey, a close friend of mine and a mentor.

Ankara also remains dependent on the United States and NATO to guarantee its security and for diplomatic support in a series of foreign policy objectives Turkey is currently interested in pursuing. These include a political solution in Syria, E.U. membership, resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, Black Sea security, the east Mediterranean energy issue, and Cyprus. Thus, Ankara must also share the burden, beginning with the government taking concrete steps to tamp down growing anti-Americanism in Turkish media. The alliance suffers when Minister of Justice Bekir Bozdag implies that the CIA works with the Gulen movement and the Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavsuoglu, says that Gulen, ISIL, and the PKK are subcontractors, implying that the groups are under the control of a larger power.

Leaked tapes, placed online by the Gulenists to damage President Erdogan, clearly show that the Turkish president is hyper aware of what is being reported in Turkey’s media. He has personally called media bosses when he disagrees with headlines. Erdogan has the power to get his allied media under control, a tool that he should exercise to benefit the longer-term relationship.

The U.S.-Turkish relationship remains important. The ISIL fight is temporary and, at some point in the future, the on-going air war will wind down once the group loses control over the territory it now controls. As the world’s only superpower, the United States has global interests and relies on allies through out the world to project military power. Turkey is one such ally. These current tensions should not distract from a longer-term investment in the U.S.-Turkey relationship, however difficult it is to maintain. Turkey is undergoing a period of instability and senior politicians are instrumentalizing anti-Americanism to explain away deep fissures and more than a decade of bureaucratic mis-management, both of which contributed to the failed coup on July 15. Washington has an interest in helping to rebuild these institutions or at least knowing as much about the on-going process as possible. The United States has tools at its disposal to reach back out to Turkey and should use them because the relationship, while problematic, is worth salvaging.


Aaron Stein is a Resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Image: Dept of Defense, Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro

Update: This article was updated to reflect Turkish operations in Jarablus.