By Mohammed Ayoob, Senior Fellow
There are two predominantly Muslim countries in the Middle East with whom America’s relations matter the most. The first is Iran, because of its impending nuclear capability and its status, by most objective indices, as the pre-eminent regional power in the Persian Gulf. The second is Turkey, because it has been the eastern and southern anchor of NATO for decades, with the second largest standing army within the alliance and is the 17th largest economy in the world. Equally important, along with Israel these are the only two robust states in the region with state traditions and histories of autonomous formation. Whatever challenges they face, the center always holds. As recent state failures in the Middle East suggest, the rest of the states — except Egypt — are not much more than tribal polities. Even Saudi Arabia, despite its enormous oil reserves, is built on the flimsy foundations of family loyalty and petrodollars — the first of which is weakening as lower oil prices put pressure on the second.
Turkey’s significance to the United States was evident a few days ago, when U.S. President Donald Trump met Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly session. Introducing Erdogan to reporters, Trump declaimed in his inimitable style: “It’s a great honor and privilege — because he’s become a friend of mine — to introduce President Erdogan of Turkey…He’s running a very difficult part of the world. He’s involved very, very strongly and, frankly, he’s getting very high marks.” President Trump’s remarks were particularly important coming as they did just months after Erdogan’s security detail attacked peaceful protesters in front of the Turkish Embassy in Washington. Fifteen of Erdogan’s security personnel were later indicted by a grand jury.
Despite the recent ups and downs in U.S.-Turkish relations and the sometimes-hyperbolic rhetoric accompanying differences between the two countries, Turkish-American relations are anchored in mutual strategic needs. Turkey needs NATO’s security cover because of regional volatility and because of its geographic proximity to Russia, a historical adversary whose relations with Turkey are far from friendly. Furthermore, it needs sophisticated arms and equipment that only the United States and its NATO allies can provide. The European Union, whose membership overlaps with NATO, is by far Turkey’s largest trading partner, and Turkey’s aspirations for EU membership are bolstered by its NATO membership and good relations with the United States.
Turkey’s geographic location at the juncture of Europe, the former Soviet Union and the Middle East, along with its symbolic value as a Muslim country closely allied with America, drive Washington’s strategic interests in the country. Furthermore, NATO’s Incirlik airbase in Turkey is of great importance to the United States as it helps Washington project power in the Middle East — especially in the Fertile Crescent, where American forces are engaged in direct combat in Syria and Iraq.
Tensions Emerge Between Allies
Nonetheless, mutual suspicions had crept into American-Turkish relations soon after the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party, or AKP, came to power in Turkey in 2002. Washington’s concerns increased when Ankara attempted to bring a degree of balance to its foreign policy by emphasizing the importance of its relations with the Muslim-majority countries to the east. Western capitals interpreted the change as Turkey’s desire to abandon its traditional pro-Western stance in order to project a neo-Ottoman policy. Much of this suspicion was a misreading of Ankara’s desire to play a regional role commensurate with its power and economic potential, as well as a signal to the European Union, which had consistently denied Turkey membership in that body.
The dream of a neo-Ottoman foreign policy, if there was one, quickly collapsed with the outbreak of civil war in Syria in 2011. Turkey was dragged into the Syrian quagmire, with disastrous economic and political consequences. Ankara had its own reasons for supporting the Syrian opposition, but the war also demonstrated that Turkey’s policies were still aligned with the West to a degree. Ankara quickly became the frontline state supporting the forces fighting the regime, which was backed by Iran and Russia — both of which the United States viewed as potential antagonists. Although fractures appeared as the Syrian civil war dragged on, initially Turkey’s role as the opposition’s major conduit for arms and men served the interests of both the Western powers and the Gulf Arab states.
This situation gave the United States and Europe some respite from concerns about Turkey’s future orientation. However, the anti-American rhetoric emanating from Ankara following the failed coup of July 2016 renewed concerns in Washington. Several pro-Erdogan media outlets, government spokesmen, and even many ordinary Turks blamed the United States for being behind the coup directly or indirectly, despite a lack of evidence to support that assertion.
What gave these allegations some degree of credibility was that Erdogan’s most recent bete noire, the recluse cleric Fethullah Gulen, lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. Gulen and his moderate, reformist and Western-oriented movement rooted in Sufi Islam, known as Hizmet (Service), ostensibly a civil society group, were allies of Erdogan’s AKP until 2013. The Gulenist officials fell out with Erdogan when they tried to investigate and prosecute officials and ministers close to Erdogan as well some of his family members for corruption. The Gulenists appear to have decided that they could no longer share power with Erdogan, who had begun to show the authoritarian part of his personality, and that if they did not make the first move Erdogan would launch a major campaign to drive them from power. Over time though it has become clear that many of the court cases filed against secular Kemalist military officers and civilians — Ergenekon and Sledgehammer conspiracies foremost among them — were the work of Gulenist police and judicial officials bent on avenging Kemalists’ past persecution of Islamists of all hues. The AKP government quickly withdrew several of these cases after the failed coup in 2016.
That failed military coup, in which some Gulenist officers were involved, came as a godsend for Erdogan. He used the incident to launch a nationwide witch-hunt against suspected Gulenists, arresting 50,000 people and suspending or firing 150,000 public servants. At the same time, the Turkish government demanded that the United States extradite Gulen to stand trial in Turkey for treason. When Washington turned down the extradition request, Erdogan and his supporters in the Turkish media engaged in hyperbolic anti-American rhetoric. The hysteria seems to have died down, possibly because Ankara has realized that the case against Gulen is not likely to succeed.
In recent years, the United States has been uncomfortable with Turkey’s attitude toward Israel, pro-Hamas rhetoric, and attempts to break the quarantine Israel imposed on Hamas-ruled Gaza after Israel invaded the territory in 2009. Turkish-Israeli relations reached their lowest point with the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010, in which Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish citizens and one American citizen of Turkish origin to prevent a flotilla headed toward Gaza with essential relief supplies from reaching its destination.
The United States worried that its two major allies in the Middle East were engaged in a dispute at a time when the region was in meltdown. Washington brokered an agreement between Israel and Turkey in 2016 to bring the Mavi Marmara dispute to a close and restore diplomatic relations. Following this agreement — in which, among other things, Israel agreed to pay $20 million to compensate families of those killed in the Israeli raid — Turkish-Israeli relations have returned to near normal. This has also helped ease strains on the Turkish-American relationship. It is interesting to note that even during the most intense phase of the Mavi Marmara dispute, defense ties between Turkey and Israel faced minimal disruption.
Ripple Effects from Syria
The main issue currently bedeviling relations between Washington and Ankara is their opposing approaches to the Syrian Kurds — especially the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the leading Kurdish party in Syria, and its military wing People’s Protection Units (YPG). Ankara’s preoccupation with the Syrian Kurdish issue prevents it from wanting to take on Daesh, or ISIS. Therefore, the YPG has emerged as the only force willing to fight — and capable of fighting — ISIS in Syria. Consequently, Washington values the group greatly as an essential ally in the effort to root out the extremist group. Therefore, Washington has provided arms, training, and air cover to the YPG forces battling ISIS.
In the process, YPG has carved out autonomous Kurdish enclaves contiguous to the Turkish border, similar to the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq. This is anathema to Turkey, which considers the PYD/YPG as extensions of the secessionist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been waging an insurgency in Turkey since 1984. Ankara is afraid that a Kurdish entity in Syria similar to the one in northern Iraq will further encourage the Kurds in Turkey seeking secession from the Turkish state. Given the PYD’s links with the PKK, a Syrian Kurdish enclave is also likely to provide safe havens for PKK fighters similar to those in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq. Turkish forces have already bombed YPG forces in Syria to prevent them from acquiring territory Ankara considers strategically important for its security.
ISIS forces’ retreat from urban centers near the Turkish-Syrian border is likely to allow the Kurds to acquire more territory in Syria, further complicating U.S.-Turkish relations. Turkey has already signaled that it has alternative foreign policy options, such as improved relations with Russia and Iran, if it finds American policies in Syria undermining its security.
Indicating a possible shift in its defense relationships, Turkey has recently signed a deal with Russia for the purchase of an S-400 surface-to-air missile system. Purchasing one anti-aircraft system does not change the reality that the Turkish military is heavily dependent on American military platforms, and changing platforms is a generational process. However, this move has caused a degree of concern within NATO, particularly on the issue of interoperability of weapons systems among the alliance members’ forces.
Turkey’s interests with Iran also converge. Tehran and Ankara are on the same side in the Saudi-Qatar dispute, supporting Qatari resistance to Saudi demands. More important, Kurdish separatism is a major security issue in both Turkey and Iran. Both countries fear the impact of a Kurdish entity emerging in Syria after the defeat of ISIS and the outcome of the independence referendum in Iraq’s Kurdish territories on Sept. 25. At this stage, this is a tactical alignment, as both sides have different objectives regarding the Syrian Kurds and the Kurdistan Regional Government. Nonetheless, this alignment is likely to force the United States to rethink its policy toward YPG forces.
Moreover, Turkey has signaled that it is willing to live with the Assad regime in Syria. This move could improve Ankara’s relations with Moscow and Tehran, but it does not necessarily put Ankara at odds with Washington. The United States recently came to terms with the fact that Assad cannot be removed by force in the short term.
Making the Most of the U.S.-Turkish Alliance
In the final analysis, Turkey’s improved relations with Moscow and Tehran may give Ankara greater flexibility in the foreign policy arena, but are unlikely to have long-lasting negative consequences for Turkish-American relations, which are anchored in a defense relationship impossible to duplicate. Syrian Kurds and their interests are not important enough for Washington to sacrifice its longstanding military and political association with Turkey. America’s support to the YPG is tactical; its relationship with Turkey is strategic. Once Raqqa falls and Daesh with it, the YPG’s value for the United States will plummet drastically. Turkey, on the other hand, will continue to be a fixture. Besides having the second-largest standing army in NATO, the Incirlik airbase is extremely valuable for NATO operations in an area ranging from Iraq to the Balkans and in guarding against potential threats from Russia. Moreover, the current mayhem in the Middle East makes Turkey even more significant as a friendly stable polity in a very volatile region.
The United States wants to use Turkey to guard against the spread of Iranian power in the region. Yet Washington could turn Turkey’s improved relations with Iran into an asset if, or rather when, the United States decides that mending ties with Iran is a priority. Ankara is one of the few capitals in the region with sufficient diplomatic sophistication and understanding of both sides’ strategic interests to become a conduit for indirect U.S.-Iranian exchanges, just as the United States used Oman as a communication channel to bring the Iranian nuclear deal to a successful conclusion. Regardless of the recurrent vagaries in the U.S.-Turkish relationship, the fundamentals of the alliance are sound and unlikely to change despite temporary setbacks.
To benefit fully from its strategic partnership with Turkey, the United States must show greater sensitivity to Turkey’s interests in its neighborhood and not work at cross-purposes with Ankara. Most important, it should actively promote Turkey’s membership in the European Union by talking with its EU allies, especially Germany and France. Ankara’s major and longstanding grudge against the West is that it has been barred from the European Union because it is demographically predominantly Muslim. The antipathy toward Western powers this issue has created among Turkey’s leaders and people affects Turkish perceptions of the United States. Therefore, the United States’ forthright and open support of Turkey’s EU membership is an imperative.
Mohammed Ayoob is a senior fellow at CGP and a University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations and Political Science at Michigan State University (MSU). The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.
Image Courtesy: AP