Turkey – United States: Alienation but not yet a Crisis

The United States will be forced to consider Turkey’s intention to put its interests first, and as a result Turkey’s priorities will not always coincide with Washington’s.

At present US-Turkish relations leave much to be desired, but this is unlikely to last forever. This does not at all mean that US disappointment with the policy pursued by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will disperse in the twinkling of an eye. This means that for all their disagreements in coordinating priorities, the two countries also have common interests that by far outweigh all of their contradictions.

The claim made by the Justice and Development Party announcing Ankara’s new role in the entire Greater Middle East in March 2003 introduced important adjustments into Turkey’s foreign policy. Ankara laid the main emphasis on regional stability, a strategy of resolving problems in neighboring countries and the buildup of regional economic ties to create the energy link between Eurasia and Europe.

Turkey’s growing political weight while coinciding with its unprecedented economic upsurge in the past decade gave Ankara the necessary confidence in its own potential to build relations with traditional allies and partners in a new way. Turkey somewhat departed from its strategic partnership with the United States and began to resolve specific issues on a case-by-case basis.

At present, Ankara is displaying much more solidarity with the Muslim world than the West, increasingly identifying itself as a Muslim country and claiming the special role of mediator in the geopolitical space from the Balkans and Palestine to Iran and Afghanistan.

Turkey’s potentialities are not limited to the region – it has access to the Caucasus, the Balkans, Central Asia, and finally to the Mediterranean and North Africa, a factor which gives it tremendous advantages.

Security issues have been the groundwork of US-Turkish NATO cooperation for many decades. This allows both countries to conduct joint actions in the Balkans, the Middle East and Afghanistan, using Turkey’s advantageous geographical position.

The wave of Islamism swept Ankara as a result of Erdogan’s policy towards reducing the influence of the secular-oriented military elite and the consolidation of the power of the Islamic leaders. This change, on a par with its ambitious attempts to protect the entire Sunni world, compelled Turkey to invigorate its policy in the Middle East. The slogans on supporting soul brothers played no small role in the president’s party’s victory at the fall parliamentary elections. This contradicts the interests of the United States, igniting fears that Turkey’s neo-Ottoman version may draw Ankara to the Middle East and the Muslim world.

The main contradictions that have emerged in relations between the United States and Turkey in the past two years reflect the former’s disappointment in the latter’s current domestic policy. This applies to Turkey’s confrontation with the Kurds, whom Washington considers important allies in the struggle against ISIS, and also Ankara’s crackdown both on the free press and the opposition.

Washington is seriously concerned over the use of Turkish territory by various groups and foreign militants participating in the Syrian conflict who lack normal channels for entering and exiting Syria. Ankara reasons that it is impossible to exercise full control over the border with Syria or block foreign mercenaries on their way into and out of the country. In this context US experts said that if the current rate of radicalization of Turkish society remains steady, the scenario of “Turkey’s eventual pakistanization” cannot be ruled out.

Upon the completion of Erdogan’s recent visit to the United States, US President Barack Obama expressed concern over certain trends inside Turkey. “I think the approach that they've been taking towards the press is one that could lead Turkey down a path that would be very troubling,” he said.

It would appear that Ankara is planning to resolve the following major tasks. First, it wants to subjugate US foreign policy in the Middle East, crush the Kurds both at home and abroad and prevent their unification; second, to preserve control in a very complicated domestic political situation and prevent any attempts at coup d’etat designed to restore the country’s former principle of secularism; third, to continue its extremely complicated and dangerous game with the Russia-banned ISIS under conditions of a Russia-Turkey crisis with unpredictable consequences; and fourth, to receive as many political and economic dividends as possible from the EU for Ankara’s consent to block the refugees.

Thus, having declared its ambitions in the Middle East, Turkey opted for multiplying problems in its relations with the United States. First, this is evidenced by a Syrian crisis that, judging by all, will not be resolved for a long time; Second, by the Ankara-provoked, acute crisis in Russia-Turkey relations that, contrary to its expectations, failed to receive proper support from Washington; and third, by Washington’s being forced to consider using another key regional player – Iran − as an alternative partner: a perspective that for now doesn’t look too attractive. If the “Iran problem” is resolved than it may join the Western coalition, a development which will considerably consolidate Tehran’s positions in the region and give it a chance to enhance its status as an energy and logistics center. If this scenario is implemented, the South Caucasus countries may turn away from Ankara to a certain extent because of their reluctance to accept the policy of Erdogan, “an Ottoman sultan that has gone too far.” This may lead to the reduction of general political and energy interests of these countries.

President Obama met with his Turkish counterpart during the latter’s recent visit to the United States, despite US media reports about Obama’s reluctance to meet with the Turkish President due to Ankara’s authoritarian policies. The presidents discussed cooperation in regional security, anti-terrorist struggle and the migration crisis. The White House quoted Obama as saying that the United States continues to support Turkey and that both countries are countering terrorism.

Thus, despite differences between the two countries, relations with Turkey still remain a priority for both the United States and the European Union, which, acting within the Trans-Atlantic Partnership, cannot ignore their decades-long cooperation with Turkey, which is primarily rooted in the fundamental security interests of both sides. So, Turkey and the West will continue to pursue the tactic of compromise and mutual concessions. This is why the Turkish president told the local newspaper Hurriyet on April 3 that “the positions of Washington and Ankara on the Kurdish self-defense forces in Syria are getting closer.”

It seems the United States will be forced to consider Turkey’s intention to always put its interests first, and as a result Turkey’s priorities will not always coincide with Washington’s. But for the time being, the West’s strategic interests in Turkey still outweigh any concerns over Turkey’s priorities.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.