Shortly after midnight on New Year’s Day, a lone ISIS-inspired gunman launched an attack at a popular Istanbul nightclub that killed thirty-nine and injured sixty-five more. The rampage signaled an inauspicious start to 2017 in Turkey and offered evidence that the tumultuous events of the previous year—including an attempted military coup and the assassination of the Russian ambassador—showed no signs of abating. These episodes reflect not only domestic unrest within Turkey but also a strain in the relationship between Washington and Ankara. Government officials and pro-government media outlets within Turkey falsely placed at least some blame for all three events squarely at the feet of the United States, their longtime NATO ally.
As the Trump administration settles into office, Turkey’s strategic partnership with the United States is at a crossroads, strained by, among other differences, conflicting priorities in the Syrian civil war and Washington’s response to Turkey’s politics at home. Not long ago, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was heralded as a leader who “could solve the perennial riddle of Islam and Democracy.” But while the ruling Justice and Development Party was initially known for its pragmatism and a search for consensus, Erdoğan, since 2014, has forged an increasingly authoritarian path. This development is troubling to the West—not least because it has only accelerated in the wake of last summer’s coup attempt. After a state of emergency was declared, opposition politicians, journalists, teachers, civil servants, and members of the military were purged from their positions or, worse, imprisoned. Despite not having a proven link to the coup, Erdoğan has extended this purge to the country’s Kurdish minority in the south. As the West frets over Turkey’s commitment to democracy, ties have warmed between Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin, with some Turkish government officials even calling to abandon the NATO alliance and pursue a further rapprochement with Russia.
With US-Turkey relations trending downward, President Trump must use his administration’s clean slate to prioritize increased cooperation and reverse this negative trajectory. Turkey’s geography ensures its importance to the United States, and both countries have an immediate shared interest in returning stability to the Middle East by defeating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and bringing an end to the Syrian civil war.
A Partnership with Strong Roots: The Origins of US-Turkey Relations
The strategic relationship between Washington and Ankara began at the dawn of the Cold War, as the United States assumed the role of global hegemon and sought to counter the rise of the Soviet Union. While the rivalry between the United States and Soviet Union was a recent development at the time, Turkey had long looked West to seek protection from a surging Russia. Competition between the two countries dated back hundreds of years to the time when Russia was the “ancient enemy” of the Ottoman Empire. Following the loss of Crimea to Russian forces in 1783, the Ottoman Empire sought alliances with the major European powers at the time to check further Russian expansion, a move that was replicated during World War I and again during the Cold War.
As the Cold War began, there was consensus across both political parties within Turkey that to strengthen the economy and modernize society, investment from outside would be required. The expansion of the Soviet sphere of influence in the region turned Washington into a willing partner, as Turkey’s geographic location suddenly became of vital importance to US foreign policy.
President Truman approved funds to modernize Turkey’s military in 1948, while Turkish president İsmet İnönü sought to cement a relationship that went beyond financial aid. İnönü wrote directly to Truman, seeking a commitment from the United States that it would not abandon Ankara in the event of a Soviet attack on Turkish soil. While the United States did not believe Turkey to be facing an imminent Soviet threat, Turkey deftly threatened Cold War neutrality to achieve its aims. Concerned that non-aligned states could ultimately enter the Soviet orbit in the developing bipolar world, the Americans were forced to respond. In 1952, the United States sponsored Turkey’s successful accession to NATO, further formalizing attempts to bring Turkey into the post-war Western orbit.
Although the United States was aligned against Turkey’s centuries-old foe, the US-Turkish relationship was not completely without tension. Throughout the Cold War, Turkey’s leaders used the threat of Soviet influence to extract a deeper commitment from the United States. Turkish prime minister Adnan Menderes sought to use the Russians as leverage over US economic aid in the late 1950s. In the 1960s and 1970s, further tensions between Washington and Moscow raised the potential for Turkey to swing to the Soviets. Simply put, there have been consistent advocates for Turkey to move its foreign policy away from NATO and the West. But Turkish leadership has always stopped short of looking East to Moscow. “So long as the Soviet Union represented the overwhelming threat to Turkish security there was only so far any Turkish leader was willing to go to win over its eastern neighbor,” according to the scholars Nick Danforth and Chris Miller.
After the Fall: The Strategic Partnership in a Unipolar World
After the Cold War ended, policy makers in Ankara and Washington were left to question the value of the strategic relationship in the absence of a common threat. The ambiguity was resolved soon after, in the wake of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Turkey’s strategic value to the United States was reaffirmed when it joined the US coalition against Saddam and was strengthened further as Turkey participated in US efforts to contain the Iraqi leader and promote stability in the region. The two nations’ interests also converged during the 1990s around the establishment of pro-Western regimes in the post-Soviet bloc, which were independent from Russia and integrated into the global economy.
Yet Washington’s policies following Iraq’s eviction from Kuwait also provided new opportunities for discord. One pillar of Washington’s strategy of containment following the Gulf War—strengthening the autonomy of northern Iraq’s Kurdish population as a counterbalance to the Iraqi dictator—raised suspicions about US motives with respect to Turkish territorial integrity among policy makers in Ankara. Fears of the Iraqi Kurds’ quest for independence, viewed as an existential threat among Turkish policy makers, were exacerbated by the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq. The subsequent failure of the Bush administration to partner with Turkey to prevent terrorist operations launched against Turkey from Iraq by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) severely damaged US-Turkey relations.
Once in office, the Obama administration quickly took steps to repair US-Turkey relations. Following stops for multilateral summits in Europe, President Obama concluded his first official visit overseas in Turkey to acknowledge the strategic partnership’s importance to the United States. In a speech to the Turkish parliament, Obama remarked that his trip was intended to send a message to the world. “Turkey is a critical ally,” he told the assembled lawmakers. “Turkey is an important part of Europe. And Turkey and the United States must stand together—and work together—to overcome the challenges of our time.” By the end of the Obama administration, however, it was clear that US-Turkey relations had fallen a long way.
The recent tensions between the United States and Turkey have created space for a rapprochement between Ankara and Moscow that Vladimir Putin has exploited. Following the attempted coup in July, Putin was quick to offer his support for Turkey’s elected government, phoning President Erdoğan one day after the coup (and three days prior to a call from President Obama). Shortly afterwards, Erdoğan joined Putin in Moscow to announce normalized relations between their two countries.
But while Western observers have been troubled by the rapprochement between Turkey and Russia, these fears are likely overblown. Turkey has a long history of mistrust toward Russia, as previously described. Further, there are limits to how far this cooperation can extend, with the “three Cs” of Cyprus, Crimea, and the Caucusus representing thorny issues for both sides. Lastly, Turkey’s warmer relations with Russia are consistent with a broader change in Turkish policy in the region, as Erdoğan has returned to the policy of “zero problems with neighbors.” With Erdoğan hoping to quell domestic upheaval as he presses for constitutional changes, Ankara has taken a step back from the assertive foreign policy it has pushed in recent years.
While fears of a rapprochement between Turkey and Russia are wrongfully inflated, concern over ties between the Trump administration and Russia are valid. President Trump has flummoxed the foreign policy community by heaping praise upon Vladimir Putin while saving his more pointed criticisms for our closest allies. Such behavior has been particularly disturbing in light of the consensus among the CIA, FBI, and NSA that Putin himself ordered a campaign focused on the US presidential election with a goal to “undermine public faith in the US democratic process.” On the day the Obama administration announced sanctions in light of these revelations, Trump’s former head of the National Security Council, Michael Flynn, phoned Russia’s ambassador to the United States, signaling the Trump White House could revisit the decision once in office. As this article went to press, revelations about the call had prompted General Flynn’s resignation, but questions remained about whether Flynn was acting at the behest of then President-elect Trump. Within the administration, meanwhile, prominent dissenting voices have warned about the dangers of a recalcitrant Russia. During his confirmation hearing, Secretary of Defense James Mattis declared Russia the greatest threat to the United States and argued for an embrace of our existing security partnerships. It remains to be seen how these competing visions of US foreign policy will shape President Trump’s decision-making moving forward.
As the Trump administration progresses, the strategic implications of this debate will play out on the battlefields of the Syrian civil war, where Turkey and the United States have been aligned in their opposition to the regime of Bashar al-Assad. While Trump and his advisers have spoken of joining forces with Russia to defeat ISIS, the policy is misguided for multiple reasons. First, while Russia has used counterterrorism as the justification for its military operations in Syria, the overwhelming majority of airstrikes have targeted Assad’s moderate opposition. Further, the United States should be wary of associating itself with the brutal tactics Russia and Assad have employed in the conflict, including the purposeful targeting of Syrian citizens. Finally, the idea promulgated by the administration of trading counterterrorism cooperation for the easing of sanctions related to Russian activity in Ukraine would exacerbate instability in the region and invite future aggression from Putin.
The Path Forward: A Roadmap for US-Turkey Relations under Trump
As President Trump’s foreign policy team defines its policy priorities, it must take concrete steps to recommit to its longtime ally and improve bilateral relations with Ankara. In the early stages of the administration, officials in Washington and Ankara have taken promising steps to affirm the importance of the strategic relationship: Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu attended President Trump’s inauguration and met with high level US officials, while CIA director Mike Pompeo recently met with President Erdoğan in Turkey. Erdoğan and Trump even spoke by phone, committing to joint anti-ISIS operations. But as the work of governing begins, further steps will be needed to improve ties.
First, President Trump must prioritize developing his policy to defeat ISIS. In the waning days of the previous administration, after months of deliberation, the Obama national security team decided that arming Kurdish fighters presented the best option for an assault on Raqqa, the capital city of the territory held by ISIS. After devising the plan, the Obama team left it to the incoming Trump administration to determine whether to authorize it, which the Trump team declined to do. As this article went to print, the Pentagon was conducting a review of the military options to defeat ISIS, a decision that will have enormous implications for the future of US-Turkey relations. US military support for the Syrian Kurds has been a strain on the strategic partnership dating back to 2014, and any further support will be an early diplomatic test for the young Trump team.
Further, the administration urgently needs to be mindful of committing unforced errors. President Trump’s past rhetoric and policy proposals targeted at the three million Muslims within the United States and over a billion Muslims worldwide have the potential to exacerbate ties with our allies in Muslim nations. While Erdoğan has not commented on the president’s executive order banning entry into the United States for people from seven predominantly Muslim countries, apparently in a bid to curry favor with the White House, Erdoğan publicly criticized Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric during the US presidential campaign. As of mid-February, the White House was also considering whether to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, another move with potentially deleterious effects for US-Turkey relations.
Finally, a renewed focus on economic partnership is one way for the new administration to strengthen ties with Ankara while it determines its geo-strategic priorities. Although the goal of a “model partnership” was developed during the Obama administration, trade between both nations increased from $14.8 billion in 2008 to just $17.5 billion by 2015. While President Trump looks set to return to the days of a protectionist trade policy, the untapped economic potential between the United States and Turkey deserves exploration.
Viewing the strategic partnership between the United States and Turkey through a historical lens reveals a complex relationship with long eras of peaks and valleys. If Washington is able to align key security priorities with Ankara, and as long as Turkey possesses the ability to shape events in the region, a strong working partnership should remain a priority for the United States. To this end, President Trump must define how his campaign goal of defeating ISIS will look in practice and engage in the diplomacy with Ankara his strategy will require. He must reevaluate his damaging policies towards Muslims. Finally, he must deepen the relationship by exploring further economic ties.
Tyler Rodgers is a Master in Public Policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School concentrating in international and global affairs.
Photo Credit: Jorge Franganillo via Flickr
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