Turkey’s Zero Sum Foreign Policy
In the past three decades, four militaries and insurgent groups bracket fired American forces deployed abroad. In three cases, this ended badly for the attacker. The Islamic State, the Taliban, and the Wagner Group all suffered from devastating airstrikes in response, punishing those that chose to open fire on American positions. The fourth military, however, escaped unscathed. Turkey is a NATO ally, and so the idea that the United States would respond with force to Turkish artillery fire is unthinkable. Yet during Ankara’s 2019 operation in northeastern Syria, Turkish units repeatedly fired close to U.S. forces, risking the lives of American soldiers without a formal military response.
Ankara’s aggressive actions in Syria are indicative of a much broader trend in Turkish decision-making and a telling sign of how Ankara views its relationship with the United States. After these events, the narrative focused on the details of the engagement. Washington quietly chastised Ankara. Turkish military leaders repeated that they take the utmost care when conducting military operations and never kill civilians. Turkish pundits pointed out that that targeting of U.S. positions was, in fact, America’s fault for being so close to Syrian Kurdish forces. This framing is not wrong. Turkey has legitimate grievances over America’s policy in Syria. Washington, too, has legitimate grievances over Turkey’s approach to Islamic State. However, this focus on minute, tangential issues masks a much more troubling trend: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is willing to risk the lives of U.S. soldiers and use aggression to try and wrest concessions from both foes and allies alike.
Turkey’s foreign policy, therefore, has become nakedly transactional and zero-sum in almost every respect. This means that there is no broad rapprochement in the making for Turkish-Western relations. Instead, Western policymakers should adapt to the status quo, wherein Ankara views its ties with Moscow, Brussels, Washington, and Beijing as equally important — and will work with actors wherever government-to-government ties are deemed beneficial to Ankara’s interests.
Washington has yet to fully internalize this shift in Turkish policy and understand how Ankara’s drive for political autonomy allows Erdogan to use Turkey’s membership in NATO — and historic alliance with the United States — to gain leverage. Ankara counts on Western leaders getting lost in debates about how “to handle Turkey” and ultimately deciding that some coercive response is necessary when Ankara does things that undermine Western interests. But inevitably that coercive response has to be calibrated because Ankara is a NATO ally. Turkey takes advantage of this asymmetry to challenge Western interests when Ankara has determined that such action is advantageous for its own regional priorities.
The frustrating thing for many in Washington in Brussels is that there is little — if anything — that can be done to manage Turkey and its foreign policy aspirations. Erdogan has proved that he will risk killing Americans so long that he can achieve his country’s security policies. When faced with a leader completely willing to disregard the reaction of its allies, Washington will be forced to respond to Turkish actions. The long-lasting outcome of these actions, however, is the cumulative disintegration of the key pillars, such as military cooperation, that have supported the U.S.-Turkish relationship for decades. This, in turn, ensures that grievance and disagreement will dictate day-to-day interactions between Turkey and its historical Western allies going forward.
The Roots of the Crisis
Turkish-Western relations have never been entirely copacetic. The two-sides have clashed over Cyprus and human rights and democracy issues. However, for close to four decades, Ankara and the West were aligned on the need to collectively prepare for war against the Soviet Union. To do so, Ankara depended on the United States for arms, funding, and equipment, while Washington turned to Turkey to pin down Warsaw Pact formations along NATO’s eastern flank. The end of the Cold War changed this dynamic. Turkey, naturally, sought to take advantage of the peace dividend and to carve out export markets for its growing numbers of private businesses and manufactures.
The main, systemic reason for current Turkish-Western tensions today stems from a mismatched understanding of threats. In particular, much of Europe, along with Washington, viewed al-Qaeda and its many offshoots, including the Islamic State, as the main threat to Western societies. Turkey, in contrast, has struggled with an ethnic insurgency and the terrorist attacks the Kurdistan Workers’ Party has conducted in Turkey since 1984. During the Cold War, Washington was happy to support Turkey in its fight against this group. During the “Global War on Terror,” however, the divergence between Washington’s focus on al-Qaeda and its offshoots and Turkey’s renewed conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party created the crisis that the two sides face today.
This crisis was manageable up until the Syrian civil war and, in particular, the rise of Islamic State. Turkish policy in Syria was initially built around a basic premise: The budding Syrian opposition, which Ankara supported with financial and military assistance, would be able to topple the regime. Turkish leadership assumed Western states would assist the opposition with direct support, as well as airpower, to force the regime to capitulate. Turkey sought to carve out a safe zone along the entirety of its border, which could house Syrian displaced persons, armed fighters, and the nascent Syrian government that Ankara was backing.
The start of the Syrian opposition coincided with detente between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party once believed that the best way to resolve the longstanding Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey was through direct talks with the group’s imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan. The Erdogan-Ocalan relationship was driven, in part, by the Justice and Development Party’s broader foreign and domestic policy ambitions. On the domestic front, the party positioned itself as the new vanguard of a liberal Turkey and insisted that its Islamist history was actually a democratic asset. This led to a series of interlinked policies, the most tangible of which was the accession process with the European Union. In the Middle East, Erdogan’s party suggested that the state’s historic, anti-Islamist stance had hindered Turkish outreach to the Arab-majority Middle East. Turkey, therefore, had the opportunity to increase its political and economic reach in its near abroad by leveraging a shared Muslim identity. This, Erodgan hoped, would break down barriers between the Middle East and Turkey, providing expanded access for Turkish firms — many of which had ties to the government — in new and growing markets.
The government’s approach to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party was part and parcel of this strategy. Erdogan believed that he could marginalize the group through outreach to Iraqi Kurds and in doing so gain leverage over Abdullah Ocalan during peace discussion conducted through intermediaries. Erdogan never ruled out making concessions in this process. But these concessions were dependent on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party disarming, perhaps in return for some greater authority granted to local leaders.
The peace process broke down for two main reasons: First, the Kurdish movement inside Turkey managed to gain votes, and the gain in votes threatened to permanently challenge Erdogan’s parliamentary majority. Second, the war in Syria between Kurdish forces and Islamic State spilled over the border into Turkey, and many Kurds in Turkey came to view Erdogan as a key enabler of Islamic State’s war against their Syrian counterparts. The Syrian Kurds truly believed that Ankara left the border open to Islamic State fighters, who were then turning their guns on Syrian Kurdish towns. The situation simmered for years, with local clashes breaking out frequently, but with the state still having the option to turn to Ocalan to calm tensions when they boiled over.
This all ended in 2015, after Erdogan’s party briefly lost its parliamentary majority and Erdogan embraced a more hawkish domestic policy to win over the country’s far-right nationalists. This partnership has endured, even if there are tensions within the coalition now ruling the country. The result has been a sustained militaristic approach toward the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. During the course of near-constant clashes for close to nine years, Ankara has succeeded in clearing Kurdish forces from southeastern Turkey thereby moving the focus of fighting to Iraq and Syria.
Indeed, since 2015, Ankara has consistently worked to minimize gains made by Syrian Kurdish forces. The narrative in Turkey, which persists to this day, is that Ankara had to prevent the establishment of a “terror corridor” along its border. This corridor stemmed from gains made by the Syrian Kurds, in tandem with the United States, in the campaign to remove Islamic State from the Turkish-Syrian border. To prevent this corridor, Ankara invaded Syria three times, each time in a way that hindered U.S. objectives against Islamic State. It was the final incursion, in 2019, that risked killing U.S. soldiers.
The Russia Factor
Turkish involvement in Syria is also shaped by Erdogan’s relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two men are not antagonistic actors, and Turkish policy towards Russia has evolved considerably since the end of the Cold War. The two countries share a maritime border in the Black Sea, and economic and energy linkages have blossomed for decades. Russia is still seen as a security threat by many in Ankara, but for several key reasons the relevance of these concerns to Turkish policy has gradually diminished.
In November 2015, after Russia intervened in Syria to prop up the Assad regime, Ankara shot down a Russian bomber that violated its airspace. The relationship worsened considerably after that, with Turkey suffering negative economic fall out after Moscow imposed sanctions on agriculture and tourism. The two sides mended relations in June 2016, however, after Erdogan apologized to Russia. This apology unlocked an increasingly synergistic relationship built around a shared set of interests. The first, and most narrowly construed, is a shared desire for the United States to leave Syria. Turkey views the U.S. presence in Syria as a national security threat owing to the relationship with the Syrian Kurds. Moscow views the American presence in Syria as illegitimate and as proof of U.S. disregard for international law. Thus, along with Iran, both Russia and Turkey have sought to put pressure on the United States to leave the region.
More broadly, Turkish policymakers, like Putin, believe that the world has changed since the end of the Cold War. Erodgan and his supporters have long insisted that they do not view the world as divided into “systems” or “blocs of power” anymore. This means states have to be nimble and adjust to the new multi-polar era. For Turkey and Russia, this means that both sides are eager to work together in ways that diminish the influence of the United States and Europe. This was evident during the cease-fire negotiations following the Nagorno-Karabakh war, the conflict in Syria, and throughout the war in Ukraine.
Finally, Erdogan views Turkey as an ascending power — and believes that the United States and Europe are declining powers. Thus, as a rational actor, it is his duty as leader to engage with the world independent of the West. Erdogan believes that the West would benefit from subordinating its regional policy to Turkey and that Turkey can act as a force multiplier for Western interests if only Washington and Brussels would allow it. This approach is at odds with how many in Washington view the historical alliance with Turkey, which was built around shared basing access for U.S. forces in the event of a NATO conflict with Russia. Erdogan and those around him do not view conflict with Russia as all that likely and are sympathetic to Russian talking points about the West’s role in provoking the invasion of Ukraine. Thus, Erdogan seeks to carve out an independent path for Turkey within the Western alliance.
These dynamics suggest that Turkey’s future in Syria will be wrapped up in its own dealings with Russia rather than be guided by deference to concerns about the United States and the West. Moscow and Ankara, therefore, have emerged as symbiotic actors in the region, bound together by sharply defined interests. The two countries are not allies. Their interactions are not always harmonious. However, they do align on their broader understanding of global politics. And this alignment is — in almost every regional contingency — opposed to that of the United States and Europe.
If Washington hopes to manage its relationship with Turkey, policymakers should begin by acknowledging this reality. Turkey has changed. Turkey’s interactions with Washington will reflect some lingering shared interests in areas like arms sales, but these will increasingly be overshadowed by divergences on issues like Syria and regional issues like the Turkish-Greco conflict in the Aegean.
This dynamic means that the U.S.-Turkish relationship is now nakedly transactional. The two sides — at least for now — do not share a common worldview nor do they have many overlapping regional interests. There is thus little to lose by using coercion to try and shape Turkish policymaking in areas like Syria, Ukraine, and the Mediterranean.
There is room for positive incentives and limited cooperation but also room for hard-line bargaining. Ankara, for example, went ahead with the purchase of a Russian S-400 missile system. This led to Turkey’s removal from the F-35 program and has now left Ankara without a fighter to replace its aging F-16s. Ankara has sought to purchase a more modern F-16 variant, along with kits to upgrade its older models, but the arrangement is held up by Congressional hesitance to export these jets. Ankara has failed to win over any allies in Congress — leaving the deal hanging in the balance.
The Biden administration has endorsed the sale but has not put serious pressure on lawmakers to approve it. Which demonstrates how the United States can use its leverage moving forward. The United States does not have to sell the F-16 to Turkey, as the export market for the jet is strong. Instead, Washington should place tangible conditions on the sale, such as Turkey’s agreeing to lift its block on Finland and Sweden joining NATO and taking de-escalatory steps in the Mediterranean.
Progress on select issues should not be mistaken for a lasting improvement in ties. In a transactional relationship, areas of mutual interests are just that: areas of mutual interest. If two sides want things from each other, they can have professional — if rigid — discussions on finding a way to get to “yes” without deluding themselves into expecting real rapprochement.
With this in mind, Washington should be candid about employing both carrots and sticks in trying to prevent another Turkish incursion in Syria. Ultimately, though, Ankara’s actions will be shaped by its interactions with Moscow, with whom it must deconflict, and by its broader ideas about how to stage-manage a rapprochement with Bashar al-Assad. More troublingly, they will also be shaped by a leadership cadre with a very specific worldview that is not friendly to the United States and Europe.
Aaron Stein is the chief content officer at War on the Rocks.
Image: The White House