Walking a Thin Rope: The U.S.-Turkey Balancing Act is Becoming Increasingly Untenable
Following the arrest of a U.S. consular employee in Istanbul in early October, U.S. representations in Turkey suspended their non-immigrant visa services in the country. Within 24 hours Turkish representations in the United States reciprocated in kind. Since this visa spat began, many observers have asked whether the U.S.-Turkey relationship can be brought “back from the brink” this time. Some more experienced observers will nod grudgingly. Turkey is simply too geostrategically important for the United States to let it go, they argue. However dramatic things may appear now, U.S. administrations have consistently engaged in difficult balancing acts when it comes to ties with Turkey. So the history suggests.
But while the relationship might indeed be salvaged yet again, the underlying cracks are growing both deeper and wider. Key alignments and mutual domestic political interests that remained in place during the Cold War as well as the George W. Bush and Obama years — for instance on Russia, on Iran, and on the Kurds — are now all but entirely absent. Also, whereas a few years ago majority-Sunni Muslim Turkey was a staunch supporter of Sunni groups in the Middle East, it is arguably no longer a useful ally to help the United States avoid another dreaded round of Sunni exclusion in Iraq and Syria. Add to this the fact that Turkey seems to be engaging in the taking of U.S. hostages as bargaining chips and that America’s ability to maneuver the diplomatic back channels inside the increasingly anti-American Ankara beltway is becoming more tenuous.
Predictions are a difficult feat with Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the helm, but the U.S. balancing act with Turkey nonetheless seems to be growing increasingly untenable. Geopolitical factors that used to keep the always difficult balancing act on track are no longer in place. Combined with a steep rise in bilateral tensions and a shrill anti-Americanism in Turkey, these factors have rendered relations with Turkey increasingly difficult for the United States to maneuver.
Alignments Once Kept the Balancing Act on Track
U.S. balancing acts on Turkey trace back at least to the post-WWII Truman doctrine from 1947, followed closely by the introduction of democracy in 1950 and Turkey’s NATO accession in 1952. The West was forced to turn a blind eye to the Turkish military’s anti-democratic transgressions in 1960, 1971 and 1980. The United States only briefly embargoed weapons sales to Turkey following the 1974 Turkish invasion of Northern Cyprus. This accommodation was because the one overriding Western interest was keeping Soviet expansion at bay.
Since the end of the Cold War, the United States and the West have often invoked Turkey as a “role model” of sorts. Following the 9/11 attacks, for instance, Bush hailed Turkey as a model country of peaceful Muslims to illustrate that his war on terror was not an all-out war on Islam. It was key to have a majority-Muslim country on board against al-Qaeda, which also struck British and Jewish targets in Istanbul in 2003. Bush kept to this much-needed stance even after Turkey refused to let U.S. troops pass through its soil on the way to Iraq in 2003 and Erdoğan proactively sided with Hamas in Gaza in 2006.
Obama counted Erdoğan as one of his top five international friends and a useful ally against rising Islamophobia around the world, even if that meant dealing with Turkish activism in support of Iran at the UN Security Council in 2010 as well as a wealth of Turkish antagonism of Israel in Davos in 2009 and over the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident the following year. Later in his presidency, Obama again embraced Turkey as a much-needed role model, this time during the Arab Spring as an example of a Muslim-majority country with a well-functioning market economy and secular democracy. In 2011, as Obama was pulling out U.S. troops from Iraq, Turkey could also prove a prized actor to ensure stability in the region and prevent the need for reengaging U.S. troops there. This kept the United States from falling out with Turkey, even if Erdoğan caused consternation with strident support of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt — subsequently even adopting and adapting the iconic Rabia Sign for his own purposes — and of Sunni extremist groups in Syria like Ahrar al-Sham, Jund al-Aqsa, and Jabhat al-Nusra.
As ISIL rose to power in 2014, Turkey was again a necessary Sunni ally against the terrorist group, which is also Sunni, even if U.S. support was fraught with caveats yet again. Obama had to see American commandos get forced out of a town in northern Syria by a Turkey-backed Sunni insurgency group when the commandos came to help the rebels expel ISIL from the area. He had to accept that although Turkey opened the important İncirlik airbase to the U.S.-led anti-ISIL coalition, Erdogan used the base as a launching pad to go after not ISIL, but the PKK. And he was forced to walk a difficult tightrope of quietly supporting the Kurdish PYD and YPG groups in Syria, even while Turkey claimed the groups were closely affiliated to the PKK, which the United States recognizes as a terror group.
For Trump, Alignments Are Dissipating and Challenges Becoming Intractable
The question now is whether Trump will be able to keep the uneasy balancing act with Turkey on track. Much like his predecessors, Trump just the other week embraced Erdoğan in New York: “We have a great friendship, as countries and I think we’re right now as close as we’ve ever been.” The United States even aligned with Turkey by announcing dismay with the Iraqi Kurdish referendum on independence.
But these positive overtures came against the backdrop of a string of events leading up to the visa spat, during which details about the U.S. consulate employee were published in pro-AKP media. There was the unannounced Turkish bombing on April 25 of YPG forces in Syria, with whom U.S. Special Forces are embedded, and the leak to the Turkish press of the whereabouts of U.S. Special Forces bases in Syria. The NATO country appears to have purchased the Russian S-400 air defense system, while Turkish-Iranian relations also warm. There was the series of street scuffles in the United States, from Erdoğan’s visit to Brookings in March 2016, to the fight between his bodyguards and protesters in Washington in May 2017, to punches thrown at protesters at Erdoğan’s speech in September in New York. Erdogan also appears to be using a new tool: the taking of political hostages such as U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson.
With these events in mind, Trump’s proclamation of his close friendship with Erdoğan does seem to reflect a willingness to stay on track with Turkey. But beyond the visa spat, he should be worried that alignments of interests are growing ever thinner on the ground, that frustrations with Turkey are moving ever closer to home, and that new levels of Turkish anti-American conspiracy theories are rendering diplomatic maneuvering in and with Turkey increasingly difficult.
Out of Sync on Iran
First, let us have a look at some key alignment questions. As a Sunni-majority NATO member, Turkey might appear be a key ally in Trump’s touted intent to contain Iran. Since the Syrian civil war started in 2011, Turkey has indeed been a staunch opponent of Iran and its proxies in Baghdad and Damascus.
However, since 2015, Turkish relations with Iran have only grown warmer. Iran’s Chief of Staff, Gen. Mohammed Bagheri, got the red carpet treatment by Erdoğan himself in August, during the first official Iranian top brass visit to Ankara in many years. Since January, Turkey and Iran have been engaged with Russia in the Astana talks over establishing de-escalation zones in Syria. As the war against ISIL in Iraq and Syria comes to a close and Kurdish dreams of autonomy and independence in the region gain salience, Turkey and Iran have a joint interest in nipping in the bud any such dreams in the minds of their own restive Kurdish minorities. Erdoğan’s Turkey in particular has made a significant turnabout to a more anti-Kurdish line since mid-2015.
Turkey and Iran also jointly stood behind Qatar in the recent crisis with Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Turkey and Iran support Qatar for different reasons — Iran because of a shared gas field and Qatar’s utility as leverage against Saudi Arabia, and Turkey because of shared support for the Muslim Brotherhood and an ever-larger military presence in Qatar. Regardless, the Saudi-Qatar crisis proved an embarrassing nuisance for the United States, and both Turkey and Iran were united in opposition to Saudi Arabia, the first stop on Trump’s maiden trip abroad in May.
It is going to be difficult for the United States to bring back Turkey from this rapprochement with Iran. As we will return to below, Turkey’s interest in putting a lid on Kurdish dreams of independence is particularly likely to make it accept (if only tacitly and with public announcements of dismay) the consolidation of Iranian power in Baghdad and Damascus. It might even prefer to see Assad stay in power rather than alienate the Iranians.
Will Erdoğan Help Trump Contain Putin?
As we saw, during the Cold War the U.S. embrace of Turkey was primarily about containing Soviet expansion. But these days, with few true friends left in the West, Erdoğan has grown increasingly dependent on Vladimir Putin for economy, for hard security, and for energy. He thus issued a rare apology to Putin in June 2016 for Turkey’s shoot-down of a Russian jet on the Turkish/Syrian border the previous year. Putin was notably quick to voice his support for Erdoğan after the July 2016 coup attempt. Now, Turkey seems to have taken the lead with Russia on solving the Syrian debacle with the United States merely looking on from the sidelines.
Putin revels in the fact that Erdoğan seemingly has decided to buy the Russian S-400 missile defense system for Turkey’s NATO army. It remains to be seen if the deal will actually go through, but the fact that Turkey pursues this option at length is very worrying to Washington. Perhaps tellingly, Turkey’s pro-government Anadolu news agency issued an infographic on the impressive versatility of the S-400 with a lengthy list of jets and missiles the system can eliminate – and most of them were American!
The Kurds of Iraq and Syria: A Major Source of Disagreement
This brings us to the complicated Kurdish question. The Pentagon is deeply embedded with the Kurds in Iraq, and has been increasingly so since the establishment of a no-fly zone over northern Iraq after the first Gulf War in 1991. In 2003 the Turkish refusal to let U.S. troops traverse Turkish soil en route to Iraq made the Kurds a key ally on the northern flank against Saddam. And since 2014, the Kurds of Iraq and Syria have been the most capable and Western-oriented group on the ground fighting ISIL.
Until recently, Erdoğan’s Turkey also seemed to share the U.S. predilection for the Iraqi Kurds as a bulwark against not only ISIL, but also the projection of Iranian power in Iraq. But this alignment now also seems to be relegated to history. It is important to appreciate the political importance of the anti-Kurdish sentiments in Turkey these days. Following a historic peace process between the Erdoğan government and the PKK, Erdoğan lost his accustomed majority in Parliament in the June 2015 general election. The spillover from developments in Syria resulted in a rise in the staunchly anti-Kurdish nationalism in Turkey. Recognizing this, Erdoğan coopted the line of the Turkish Nationalist Action Party, the MHP, and initiated (even by Turkish standards) a historically hard crackdown on the Kurds. This brought Erdoğan’s AKP back to power in the re-election that he called for in November 2015.
The newfound anti-Kurdish line has made Erdoğan turn his back even on his one Kurdish ally, the president of the Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq, Massoud Barzani. Less than a year ago, Erdoğan heavily criticized Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi over Iraqi pressure on Turkish troops in the Turkish Bashiqa camp northeast of Mosul (where Turkey had been training Sunni and Kurdish troops against ISIL) and the presence of Shia militia in the Turkmen town of Tal Afar. Just the other week, Abadi was welcomed in Ankara as a friend. In April, Erdoğan referred to Shia militias in Iraq as a terror organization; in October he supported them in Kirkuk against Barzani, his old ally. Turkey is no longer a helpful backer of the historically strong U.S. support for the Kurds of Iraq.
This brings us to the even thornier issue of U.S. support for the Kurdish PYD and YPG groups in Syria. Ankara sees the PYD and YPG as an extension of the PKK. In the 1980s and 1990s, the PKK launched its insurgency against Turkey out of Syria, enjoying the support of Hafez al-Assad. Now, the prospect of the PKK gaining a launching pad on Turkey’s southern border for another round of war on Turkey has become the country’s top homeland security worry. Arguably, Turkey’s recent incursion into the northern Idlib area of Syria is more about containing the Kurds of the Afrin region to the north of Idlib than fighting the al-Qaeda affiliated Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) there.
The United States added the Kurdish PKK to its list of recognized terror groups in 1997, but despite a host of indications to the contrary, publicly insists the PYD and YPG are different from the PKK. As ISIL is defeated in Syria, the Americans face another dilemma. If they stay, tensions with Turkey will persist. If they leave, chances are that Syria will be left in the hands of Russia and Iran.
Turkey’s Shifting Role in Preventing Sunni Exclusion
Recall that both Bush and Obama invoked Turkey as a model and helpful ally in support of non-violent (2001), democratic (2011), and moderate (2014) Sunni Muslim groups in the region. Mindful of the fact that Sunni exclusion in Iraq after the ouster of Saddam Hussein was a key driver of ISIL’s rise, the United States will want to avoid Sunni-Arab exclusion in Syria and Iraq this time around.
But the days of Turkish support of all sorts of Sunni groups in Syria are gone. Turkey is no longer engaged in proactively backing the Sunni insurgency against the Shia Alawite Assad regime. Arguably, its only concern is containing and defeating the Kurdish PYD and YPG in Syria, who to the chagrin of Turkey are enjoying not only American, but also Russian support.
In a sharp turn from its support for the Sunni insurgency in Syria, Turkey now can’t stop talking about “territorial integrity”, “national sovereignty,” and “political unity.” Turkey arguably pulled its support for Sunni groups in Aleppo as part of the August 2016 deal with Russia. That agreement allowed a Turkish incursion into northern Syria to drive a wedge into the Kurdish dream of uniting all three of their cantons there. The Saudi-based cluster of Sunni opposition groups, the High Negotiations Committee, has also been very critical of Turkey’s role in the Astana talks and the resultant de-escalation zones in Syria. Turkey’s engagement in the Astana process also has seen Assad regain large swaths of territory from the start of the process in December 2016 through today. And, as mentioned, Turkey’s recent engagements in Idlib are more about containing Kurds than providing Sunni insurgency groups with shelter against aggression by Assad, Russia, and Iran.
Largely the same can be said of Iraq. Turning his back on the Iraqi Kurds, Erdoğan has helped Shia-dominated Baghdad and the Shia militia gain significant swaths of lost territory. Turkey is now more unlikely than ever to help the United States prevent the history of Sunni exclusion from repeating itself.
Bilateral U.S.-Turkey Relations: More Salient, and More Tested
Asides from the disappearing security alignments between Ankara and Washington, Turkey is also becoming a domestic nuisance for Trump. There are the aforementioned and highly publicized series of street brawls that seem to go with Erdoğan’s visits. There is the case in the United States against the Iranian-Turkish businessman, Reza Zarrab (along with the deputy CEO of the Turkish Halk Bank, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, and the former economy minister, Zafer Cağlayan) for breaking UN sanctions on trade with Iran. Turkey has adopted hostage-style methods to get Fethullah Gülen extradited to Turkey from his home in the Poconos. And there are the troublesome cases of two people close to Trump, Michael Flynn and Rudy Giuliani, who are in the spotlight for furthering Turkey’s interests within the Trump administration. With Turkey’s growing unpopularity in D.C., this only makes bilateral relations more complicated.
Finally, the falling out between Erdoğan and the departing U.S. ambassador to Turkey, John Bass, has revealed that America’s room to maneuver in diplomatic back channels in Ankara has shrunk considerably. Of course, a fresh start with a new ambassador is always possible, but the level of anti-American conspiracy theories in Turkey is not to be underestimated. Among other things, many accuse the United States of “masterminding” the claimed Gülenist coup attempt in July 2016 and the PKK’s return to power. Also, as a recent set of Pew findings reveal, the number of people in Turkey who see the United States as a threat to their country has seen a steep rise from 44% in 2013 to 72% in 2017, the highest number out of all 30 countries surveyed this year.
This landscape will not lend itself easily to diplomatic attempts at papering over the many deepening cracks in U.S.-Turkey relations.
Can the Balancing Act Continue?
There are a number of factors that may slow down Ankara’s drift away from Washington. However troublesome, Turkey still is and will likely remain a NATO member. However comatose, Turkey’s EU accession process is still formally there. Turkey’s rapprochements with Russia and Iran also should not be mistaken for friendships. There is every reason to be skeptical about the completion of the S-400 purchase. And Russia is actually more aligned with the United States on the Kurds than with Turkey. As already mentioned, Iran also has a history of supporting the PKK and PYD faction against Turkey.
Getting quietly tough with Erdoğan could help Trump resolve some of the hostage-like scenarios. The recent release from Turkish custody of the German human rights activist, Peter Steudtner, could be seen as a result of Germany quietly cracking down on international funds to Turkey. As Turkey’s summer 2016 turnabout on Russia made clear, hard security and hard economics matter for Erdoğan as he increasingly struggles to muster support at the ballot box. No fewer than three elections are coming up between now and 2019. If Trump were, for instance, to have NATO exert some pressure on Turkey, that could help force Turkey to make concessions to keep the balancing act on track.
But — and there is a big “but” here — the stable U.S.-Turkey alignment against the Soviet Union is no more. The joint fight against Sunni extremist terror groups of the Bush and Obama years is increasingly frustrated by Turkey’s top two terror concerns, the PKK and the Gülen group. Turkey is arguably going to make it more difficult to ensure a lasting stability in Iraq and Syria through open opposition to Kurdish inclusion and its loss of leverage as a strong supporter of Sunni groups.
For Washington’s part, the willingness inside the Beltway to go the extra mile for Turkey is all but gone. Bodyguard brawls and Erdoğan’s open suggestion to swap prisoners have taken a toll on the few supporters Turkey might have left there. And Trump should not take lightly the kind of audience anti-American rhetoric has in Turkey.
The balancing act could well continue, but the players involved are walking an increasingly thin tightrope.
Jakob Lindgaard, PhD is researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies focusing on Turkey and Kurdish issues. Recent publications include a contribution to the FEUTURE research project paper The Evolution of the EU’s and Turkey’s Security Interests, Threat Perceptions and Discourse and the chapter It is too dangerous to be an individual in Turkey in a recent Springer collection on the 2013 Gezi demonstrations.