This article was originally published here in The Washington Post on August 17, 2018.
In July, a deal to release an American minister jailed in Turkey came apart because, a White House official told The Washington Post, Turkey was changing the agreement and “upping the ante.” A few weeks later, President Trump tweeted that he had doubled tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from Turkey, punctuating his thought with: “Our relations with Turkey are not good at this time!” Magdalena Kirchner, an analyst at Conias Risk Intelligence, told Newsweek that this would stop both sides from seeking “consensus for the sake of the alliance.”
In March, writing for Foreign Policy in response to outrage after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened American forces in Syria, former Bush administration officials James F. Jeffrey and Michael Singh soberly declared, “Turkey is a regional geographic and economic giant that stands as a buffer between Europe and the Middle East, and between the Middle East and Russia.” Writing for The Post, the Atlantic Council’s Matthew Bryza argued that “the White House has decided to give up on Turkey as an ally.”
American officials have often insisted on seeing Turkey, a NATO ally since 1952, as a close partner, which is why the recent fallout seems so shocking. Don’t these two countries share interests and values?
Not really. When you strip away all the happy talk, it’s clear the two nations aren’t really, and have never been, that close. This is a relationship doomed to antipathy.
Alliances are never perfect, of course, and there have been moments over the past seven decades that justify Turkey’s image as a close partner of the United States: President Turgut Ozal shut down pipelines carrying Iraqi oil through Turkey during the run-up to the Gulf War, at great cost to the Turkish economy, for instance. A decade later, the Turkish government was among the first to condemn the 9/11 terrorist attacks and quickly committed troops to Afghanistan. Turkey became an important and valued component of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in that country.
By that time, American officials had become accustomed to seeing Turkey as a partner, like their closest allies in Europe and East Asia. The country’s failure to live up to this role reveals more about our own desperation for Turkey to be something it isn’t, and about Cold War strategies, than about Turkish shortcomings.
Except for Turkey’s 1974 incursion in Cyprus, which led Congress to punish Ankara with an arms embargo, conflicts and problems in the bilateral relationship could be swept aside for decades because of the overarching threat Moscow posed to both nations. In 1978, a year and a half after his inauguration, President Jimmy Carter and Congress lifted the embargo out of fear that a rift with NATO would imperil the West’s position in the eastern Mediterranean: Turkey was a physical and strategic buffer between the Soviet Union and the rest of Europe.
In the decades since the Cold War ended, problems between the United States and Turkey have piled up, but Washington and Ankara no longer share a threat that mitigates these differences. After the Persian Gulf War, which Turkey supported, it grew exasperated at sanctions on Iraq that, it believed, hindered its own economy. So it began turning a blind eye to Iraqi oil exports crossing its border. When Turkey pledged to aid the mission in Afghanistan, its troops didn’t engage in combat. Turks opposed the later Iraq War on principle, which was their right, but also repeatedly threatened to undermine the stability of northern Iraq, the one region of the country that welcomed the American occupation, because it housed a separatist movement that advocated for Turkey’s oppressed Kurds.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, Turkey became a champion of Hamas, supporting the organization diplomatically in its periodic conflicts with Israel and welcoming its operatives in Istanbul. In Syria, Ankara enabled extremists who used Turkish territory as a rear area in the fight against the Assad regime. And the Turkish government has stirred up unrest at Jerusalem’s holy sites.
When it comes to Iran, the Turkish government (along with Brazil) negotiated a separate nuclear agreement with Tehran that ran at cross purposes to Washington’s; intentionally blew the cover on an Israeli intelligence operation in Istanbul gathering information on Iran’s nuclear program; and opposed the Obama administration’s effort to impose new U.N. sanctions on Tehran, then helped the Iranians evade those sanctions. Turkey’s incursions into northern Syria have complicated the fight against the Islamic State, for a time drawing Washington’s Syrian Kurdish allies away from the front line to face the Turks and their allies.
In 2016, Erdogan threatened to allow tens of thousands of refugees to enter Europe, apparently because of suspended talks on Turkey’s European Union membership. “You did not keep your word,” he said in a speech in Istanbul. The threat, repeated months later by Turkey’s interior minister, stoked fears in Europe and the United States that such a move — intended or otherwise — would help further empower populist, nationalist and racist political forces already roiling the politics and potentially the stability of the E.U., a core strategic interest of the United States. In long-running disputes over small islands, the Turkish military has sought to intimidate Greece through repeated, needlessly provocative violations of Greek airspace.
The danger from Moscow no longer justifies overlooking these significant differences in priorities. In fact, the Turkish government is buying an air defense system from the Russians that could provide Moscow with information about the American F-35 fighter jet, the newest high-tech plane in the U.S. arsenal, which Turkey also plans to fly. Under these circumstances, lamenting the end of our partnership with Turkey seems absurd.
To be fair, from the Turkish perspective, the United States is not much of an ally, either. A staggering number of Turks believe that Washington was complicit in the attempted 2016 coup d’etat. One poll conducted online in 2016 by a Turkish newspaper found that almost 7 in 10 Turks blamed the CIA. This patently false idea (which Erdogan and other officials have nurtured) along with Trump’s tweet makes Erdogan’s latest accusation that the United States is attempting an economic coup all the more plausible to the Turkish public. Meanwhile, Washington’s Syrian Kurdish allies are directly linked to a Turkish Kurdish terrorist organization, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, that has carried out a violent campaign against Turkey since the mid-1980s. So it’s easy to understand why U.S. approval ratings in Turkey hover between the low and high teens.
The speed with which relations deteriorated after the deal to free the clergyman imploded highlights a relationship marked by frustration and mistrust, not common aims. It is no wonder the Turks seldom, if ever, defend their relationship with Washington. They believe America seeks to do them harm.
In an address to Turkey’s parliament in 2009, President Barack Obama said: “The United States and Turkey have not always agreed on every issue, and that’s to be expected — no two nations do. But we have stood together through many challenges over the last 60 years.” Even with the hopeful gloss, that’s closer to reality than the standard characterization of the two nations as close partners. With the current tensions, expect the debate over who “lost Turkey,” and calls to protect the alliance, to grow louder. But it is hard to really lose an ally when it was not much of one to begin with.