In recent years, the troubled relationship between Turkey and the USA “has been in a downward spiral”. Due to an ever-increasing number of disagreements between the two, the putative allies are more and more at odds with each other.
The US-Turkey alliance was born at the time when both nations were concerned about “Soviet expansionism” after World War II. Turkey’s proximity to the USSR made it the perfect location from where Washington could monitor its key opponent during the Cold War. And if an armed conflict were to break out, the USA hoped that Turkey would tie up Soviet divisions in Armenia and Bulgaria. In return, Washington guaranteed Ankara’s safety and security by positioning nuclear weapons in Turkey’s territories.
However, in the three past decades since the end of the Cold War, the United States and Turkey “have struggled to define shared interests”. As a result, even according to some American media outlets, Ankara now thinks the USA is “a destabilizing force in the Middle East”. And “US support for Kurdish militias in Syria has cemented” this view there. Initially, when the war in Syria started, Turkey “tried to persuade the United States to use military force to topple Assad or, at the very least, to deny his regime access to the northern part of the country”. In the end, however, Ankara was unable to “manipulate US firepower to its benefit”. “As US and Turkish interests in Syria diverged, Ankara began to reevaluate its traditional deference to Washington” on various issues. In recent years, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been trying to “reduce Turkish dependence on the United States and to establish the country as an independent, global power”. The Turkish leadership has also been promoting “the idea of a post-US Middle East” where others “would look to Turkey for leadership”.
Having begun the reassessment of its generally positive view of Washington, Ankara, essentially, started “making the case to the Turkish public that decoupling from the United States” would be in the country’s best interest. At first, this idea was met with considerable opposition from Turkish officials in the defense sector, but after nearly 18 years of AKP rule, “during which time the United States antagonized Turkey by partnering with the Syrian Kurds, a large and growing share of the national security elite has turned against” Washington’s policies. This change in attitude was also, in large part, prompted by an investigation carried out by the Turkish President into an attempted coup d’état by Gülen supporters in the Turkish military in 2016, and into the unsavory role played by Washington in the whole affair, including harboring a member of the opposition and Islamic scholar, Fethullah Gülen, by the United States. After Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his party came to power, views held by average Turkish citizens about the United States became less favorable. For instance, in year 2000, more than half of the Turkish population had a positive opinion of the United States but during Erdoğan’s presidency this number reduced to 18%.
Ankara thus began to explore partnerships with other regional and global players especially focusing on forging closer ties with Russia.
US political leaders and national security experts were of the opinion for some time that despite Ankara’s perceived hostility towards Washington, Turkish elites still viewed the United States as an indispensable ally, but then Erdoğan and the ruling AKP began to adopt “a more neutrally aligned foreign policy” that would be more beneficial for Turkey. In other words, according to US experts, the Turkish leadership no longer considers its relationship with Washington “nearly as valuable as Washington seems to think it is”, and, in addition, Ankara is willing to put its own national security interests ahead of those of the United States and prioritize its relationship with Russia. In fact, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan tries to portray himself as a strong independent politician who has helped Turkey hold its head up high once again not only on the global but also on the domestic political arena.
Recently, Turkey has shown an increasing willingness to act independently and even counter to US interests. And various US experts have apparently started recommending that the White House take tough measures against the Republic of Turkey in response. For instance, Washington could support the Kurds and the opposition within Turkey more openly, impose sanctions against Ankara, and even expel it from NATO and withdraw US troops from its territories. Since 2016, Turkey has been increasingly viewed as less and less of an ally by some within the United States. Other experts, on the other hand, are asking the following question: “Can Ankara’s current animosity towards the USA be viewed as transitory in nature or is the next Islamic Revolution, similar to that in Iran, in the works in Turkey?”.
In order to bring its “stubborn ally” into line, Washington has already taken several openly anti-Turkish steps recently. For instance, in 2019, the US House of Representatives passed a resolution that recognized the mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as a genocide, which was a serious blow not only to Turkey’s political elites but also to its average citizens. Turkey was also excluded from the F-35 multirole combat aircraft program because it had decided to purchase S-400 missile systems from Russia. US media outlets and speeches by various politicians, especially those made during the ongoing US presidential race, have been more and more openly critical of Ankara because of its invasion of Syria; efforts to promote its own policies on the use of the Euphrates and Tigris waters that led to disruption in water supply in Syria and Iraq; the deployment of its forces to Libya, and its attempts to extract energy from the Cypriot exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Recently, Washington has focused on the Cyprus issue in its efforts to ensure Ankara toes the line. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was tasked with reviewing whether or not the arms embargo imposed against Cyprus in 1987 to encourage reunification of the island could be lifted. It is worth noting that, previously, the United States had never shown any interest in the problems facing Cyprus despite the blatantly illegitimate occupation of its northern parts by Turkey, but recently it has. The US President took such a step as a result of lobbying efforts made not only by pro-Israeli groups wishing to eliminate Turkey as a rival to the collaboration among the United States, Israel, Greece and Cyprus on the basis of the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act approved in 2019, but also by extremely influential think tanks in the USA. The latter also believe that lifting the arms embargo imposed against Cyprus will be an effective and reasonable response to Ankara’s improving ties with Moscow.
In the end, it was decided that Turkey needed to fulfill the following conditions, including:
- stopping military operations in north-eastern Syria and changing its policies towards Syrian Kurds;
- cancelling the purchase of S-400 missile systems from Russia;
- and annulling its maritime agreement with Libya.
According to Turkish media outlets, Ankara clearly understands that these steps, taken by Washington, are USA’s attempt to create yet another “conflict zone”, in addition to Syria and Libya, for Turkey, and to show the true value of its “friendly embrace” to the NATO ally.
Valery Kulikov, political analyst, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.