04.11.2019 Author: Vladimir Platov

Are the Contradiction-Riddled US-Turkey Relations Still Repairable?


There’s no denying that recent years have witnessed bilateral relations between Turkey and the United States taking a massive plunge. These days, those are characterized by a long list of contradictions that render Ankara incompatible with the status of a NATO-ally.

It’s hardly a secret that ties between Washington and Ankara were driven by Turkey’s determination to preserve its status as a NATO power, having joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as early as in 1952. At first, the West was pretty skeptical of the idea of bringing a major Muslim power into the alliance. US President Harry Truman was able to persuade both the general public and policymakers to do so, fearing that Turkey would eventually fall under the influence of the USSR. The possibility of rapprochement between Ankara and its immediate communist neighbor was viewed as a major challenge in Washington, since Turkey exercises full control over such straits as the Bosphorus and Dardanelles, which are of paramount importance for any military alliance seeking influence in the Black Sea.

Back in the day, Turkey’s participation in the Korean War on the side of the United States served as a key indicator that it was prepared to ascend into the alliance, as it had committed thousands of servicemen to the conflict. Additionally, Turkey expressed its readiness to become a “watch post” along the borders of the USSR for the duration of the Cold War.

Yet, times are changing, just like the priorities of key international players. All that remains after a long list of grievances are the anti-American sentiments within Turkish society, with some of its members taking their frustrations regarding the continuous US military presence in Turkey to the streets. As it’s been noted by Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan, the frustration of the population has increased over the last couple of years due to the fact that Ankara and Washington fail to resolve their differences. Last May, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu revealed that the Turkish people are demanding authorities to close the Incirlik military base, adding that the last German forces had to withdraw from this military installation a year prior due to a long list of political disputes between Ankara and Berlin.

However, for US-Turkey relations the turning point was Ankara’s refusal to acquire the Patriot anti-aircraft missile system, choosing a much more viable alternative instead in the form of Russia’s S-400.

As it’s been noted by the Turkish strongman, over the years, Turkey would immediately rush to America’s help whenever necessary. However, the United States has a long history of refusing to recognize legitimate concerns of the Turkish people. The final nail in the coffin of US-Turkey relations was a series of disagreements that emerged in the last couple of years, with each side being unable to reverse this trend.

According to Erdogan, Turkey came under attack by the members of a shadowy group led by Fethullah Gulen back in 2016. This individual leads his own organization, officially described by the Turkish government as the Fethullah Terrorist Organization, from a compound in rural Pennsylvania. Back then the Turkish people expected the United States to unequivocally condemn the attack and express solidarity with Turkey’s elected leadership. It did not.

Additionally, Ankara remains frustrated with the partnership between the United States and the YPG, the Syrian branch of the PKK, an armed group that was designated as terrorist organization by Turkey for years.

However, those ties hit a new low with Turkey launching its military operation in northeast Syria known as Operation Source of Peace, designed to push Kurdish militias away from the Turkish border, effectively creating a security zone along Turkey’s southern flank. Although there was no formal objections to this operation voiced by US President Donald Trump, nevertheless, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted for introducing sanctions against top Turkish officials who approved the operation. In addition, they adopted a restriction on the sale of US-manufactured weapons to Turkey that could be used in Syria.

However, the almost unanimously supported initiative to recognize “the mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 20th century” as genocide was far more painful for Turkey than any sanctions. Although, there was a number of bills being submitted to the House of Representatives designed to formally acknowledge the Armenian genocide, they were all marked by careful wording that was chosen not to infuriate Ankara, which remained an important strategic partner of the United States in the Middle East. This went on for decades, but now we’ve witnessed a turning point. Moreover, even if the sanctions associated with Turkey’s operation in Syria can still be lifted, the latter decision on the Armenian genocide cannot be reverted. The US ambassador to Turkey, David Satterfield has already been summoned by the Turkish Foreign Ministry to receive the diplomatically restrained frustration, together with Ankara’s assessment of “Washington’s hostile approach to Turkey.”

Some analysts claim this was the result of Washington’s poor attempt to reevaluate its approach to the situation in Syria, with many overreacting to Trump’s decisions to withdraw American troops from the border region, thus abandoning America’s Kurdish allies to face Turkish armed forces. However, it is hardly a secret these days that American troops haven’t left the region. Moreover, they retained control over the tidbit of Syrian territory heavily soaked in dollars and oil. As for the damage inflicted upon America’s Kurdish allies it is largely determined by a slight reduction of the territories they control.

However, the damage inflicted upon US-Turkish relations is irreparable.

Today, experts mostly tend to agree that when Erdogan speaks about his “allies”, the Turkish president is not referring to the United States, but to Russia, Iran and China. Although it’s true that Turkey is unlikely to ascend to BRICS in the foreseeable future due to certain restrictions that exist within this organization, it will most certainly be able to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in the next couple of years. Turkey has been actively developing relations with all major Asian states, such as India and China, but the closest ties it has managed to establish with another country binds it with Russia.

Vladimir Platov, an expert on the Middle East, exclusively for the online magazine New Eastern Outlook”. 

Please select digest to download: