Deterioration of US-Turkey Relations?

By: Konstantin Veit

This essay discusses the articles U.S.-Turkey Relations: How to Proceed after Obama by Mehmet Yegin and Hasan Selim Özertem, and Turkey and the United States: Friends or Foes? by Nathanael Bennett. Bennett analyzes extensively where U.S. and Turkish interests and policies converge and diverge in recent years, while Yegin and Özertem focus on recent occurrences influencing the Turkish-American relationship, especially on U.S. cooperation with Kurdish militia to fight the so-called Islamic State as well as on the delayed support for the Turkish government from Washington after the failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016. Highlighting different aspects of the strained relationship, both articles nevertheless conclude that “mistrust continues to grow”[1] and that several developments over the past few years have led to “question[ing] the future of the strategic relationship between the two countries.”[2] I agree with Bennett’s view that U.S.-Turkey relations are deteriorating, though Yegin’s and Özertem’s analysis does not provide sufficient depth, highlighting too few of the frictions in the US-Turkey relation and thereby failing to grasp the complexity of this alliance.

Yegin and Özertem build their analysis of worsening US-Turkish relations mainly on two lines of reasoning: “In Turkey, there is growing discontent with the United States due to its ongoing close cooperation with the PKK-linked PYD, and its delayed embrace of the elected government that survived July’s military coup attempt.”[3] To my mind, this assessment is too narrow, especially compared to Bennett’s work. First, Yegin and Özertem do not take into account sufficiently other major actors in the Middle East power play, but concentrate on the Kurdish issue’s effect on US-Turkish relations. Their article only mentions “disagreement on how to deal with Iran”[4] and “deterioration of relations between Turkey and Israel”[5], completely leaving out players like Hamas, Russia or Washington’s and Ankara’s attitudes toward various actors of the fragmented landscape in the Syrian civil war, most importantly the Assad regime and ISIS. However, Turkey’s relations with all these actors matter a great deal for U.S. relation with Turkey, as Bennett explains in detail. The case of Erdogan’s ongoing support for Hamas, for example, which is designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department, and his persistent disdain of Israel, show how Washington’s and Ankara’s foreign relations may be in conflict, especially when it comes to pivotal Middle Eastern trouble spots like the Arab-Israeli conflict. Bennett even concludes that, “Turkey’s relationship with Israel represents the starkest challenge to U.S./Turkey relations”[6] because of the strong US-Israel alliance. Not assessing Turkey’s interconnection with important third states like Israel or Iran, which Bennett describes as “the most troubling of Turkey’s friends”[7], in the context of U.S-Turkey relations weakens Yegin’s and Özertem’s analysis.

Furthermore, Yegin and Özertem do not provide a satisfactory explanation of why the U.S.’s ongoing support for the PYD (the militia of the Democratic Union Party [YPG] which is the Syrian sister organization of the PKK) causes serious tensions between the two countries – which it undoubtedly does. In my opinion, the sources of this tension are the diverging perceptions of threat and strategic interests between Turkey and the US.

The primary interest of the U.S. in the Middle East is unequivocally to defeat ISIS, which is considered as an essential threat to the United States’ security. Regarding its foreign policy priorities, the Trump White House website says: “Defeating ISIS and other radical Islamic terror groups will be our highest priority.”[8] Trump already underscored this goal in his inaugural address, saying that he will, “unite the civilized world against Radical Islamic Terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth.”[9] The fact that the extinction of radical Islamic terrorism is the only foreign policy goal which he explicitly stated, further underpins Bennett’s assessment that “the U.S. views the Islamic State as the primary threat in Syria”.[10] Turkey, however, “views the Assad regime as the more dangerous threat”[11] in Syria. The majority in Turkey perceive U.S.-PYD cooperation as a threat, and 43% of Turks even view the U.S. as “Turkey’s greatest threat.”[12] This complex network of threat perceptions, as portrayed in Bennett’s analysis, was not sufficiently disentangled by Yegin and Özertem.

On the other hand, Bennett falls short of taking into consideration properly the Kurdish issue as a source of friction in Turkish-American relations. The U.S. alliance with the Kurdish YPG/PYD is one of Turkey’s highest security priorities and should be recognized as such. Furthermore, Bennett fails to cover the diverging attitudes of Washington and Ankara toward developments in the Arab Spring, such as their reactions to the military coup in Egypt. However, apart from these minor flaws, Bennett provides a very comprehensive analysis. Beside his above-mentioned detailed treatment of several third-party states, Bennett considers further aspects which are a thorn in the United States’ side, such as Turkey’s apparent unwillingness to act against, “the flow of Islamic State fighters into and out of Turkey along its border with Iraq and Syria.”[13] He says that, “Turkey appears ambivalent at best about known terrorists residing or transiting through Turkey”[14].

Furthermore, besides diverging strategic interests, different foreign policy priorities, and Turkey’s apparent ties to terrorist organizations, Bennett considers Erdogan’s “steady Islamization of Turkey” and his “march toward authoritarianism”[15], as further straining US-Turkish relations, most notably in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt in July 2016, which Erdogan used as justification for detaining or dismissing “tens of thousands of personnel within its military, judiciary, civil service, and educational system”[16]. Today, more journalists are imprisoned in Turkey than in Russia or Iran.

To conclude, neither articles provided a full picture of the sources of friction in U.S.-Turkey relations. However, Bennett’s analysis came up with a far more detailed treatment of U.S. and Turkey’s relations with third-party states and the effects of those relations on the U.S.-Turkish alliance. Furthermore, he brought out more clearly what is, in my opinion, the current key challenge to US-Turkish cooperation, namely the divergence in their security priorities, most obvious in different perceptions of threats. Regarding Turkey, “It certainly appears as if Erdogan has placed his desire to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ahead of any other security objective and is, therefore, permitting any individuals that will oppose Assad a free pass through Turkey.”[17] As important as Assad is only the threat of a unified Kurdish coalition to Erdogan. Both Assad and the Kurds are prioritized by Ankara over the defeat of the Islamic State, while the U.S unambiguously sees the latter as its greatest threat, putting further strain on the relation with Ankara through its cooperation with the Kurdish PYD. It remains to be seen whether the new U.S administration’s course will overcome some of these challenges. Its first statements regarding U.S foreign policy priorities and the basic idea of ‘America First’ are not encouraging. At the same time, it deserves further attention whether Turkey sticks with its decade-long partnership with Western powers such as the United States and NATO.

[1] Yegin and Özertem

[2] Bennett p. 251

[3] Yegin and Özertem

[4] Yegin and Özertem

[5] Yegin and Özertem

[6] Bennett, p. 238

[7] Bennett, p. 238

[8] https://www.whitehouse.gov/america-first-foreign-policy (2/5/2017)

[9] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2017/01/20/donald-trumps-inaugural-address-full-text-as-prepared-for-delivery/?utm_term=.a2636b0a0a88 (1/22/2017)

[10] Bennett, p. 246

[11] Bennett, p. 246

[12] Bennett, p. 229

[13] Bennett, p. 227

[14] Bennett, p. 242

[15] Bennett, p. 232

[16] Congressional Research Service: Turkey: Background and U.S. Relations, p. 11f.

[17] Bennett, p. 243

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