How Did the US and Turkey Become Frenemies?


Credit: Office of U.S. Vice President, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1946, the relatively neutral post-WW2 Turkey found itself in a potentially disastrous tension with the USSR over the status of the Turkish Straits connecting the Black Sea with the Mediterranean. De-escalation of the strife was brought by the Truman Doctrine, which rendered the U.S. military help to Turkey, serving the shared interest of both states – keeping the USSR’s influence in Europe at bay. Fearing further Soviet aggression, Turkey joined NATO in 1952 and started to be regarded as one of the most reliable allies of the U.S. in its struggle against communist expansion. During the Gulf War of 1990-91, Turkey reinforced its strong commitment to the alliance by joining the international effort spearheaded by the U.S. to quash Iraq’s aggression against Kuwait. At the time, Turkey agreed to impose the UN-sanctioned trade embargo and closed down one of the two major oil pipelines which were at Iraq’s disposal at the time. Turkey’s prompt actions secured the effectiveness of the economic sanctions championed by the allied forces, curbed the flow of funds to the Iraq’s government, and contributed their fair share to the eventual victory. This type of allegiance showcased by Turkey, however, came at the cost of woeful economic losses for the country, which according to different estimates, were anywhere between $40 and $100 billion annually.

When one compares Turkey’s unequivocal support for the U.S.-orchestrated suppression of Iraq in 1991 with its open defiance of the U.S. both with regard to the purchase of Russian anti-missile systems and the invasion of the Syrian territory controlled by the Kurds, it becomes apparent that the U.S.-Turkish relations have deteriorated quite substantially over the past years. So, what has happened and where will the bilateral relations stand in light of Biden’s presidential victory? 

The Kurds

The realist exegesis of the matter singles out one conspicuous reason which could induce a militarily weaker Turkey to act in a way that many deem “imprudent” by confronting the economic and political giant that the U.S. is. The Kurdish minority in Turkey, through the actions of the terrorist group of PKK (Kurdistan’s Working Party), has consistently threatened the territorial integrity of the country. The realist theory of international relations posits that any external or internal factor endangering the primary interest of a state, which is its physical survival, spurs a harsh response often resulting in a direct confrontation. In the aftermath of the Gulf War, the UN created a safe haven for the Kurds in Iraq. Reportedly, this zone was later employed by the Kurdish militants to stage terrorist attacks in Turkey. Although Turkey itself initiated the creation of the no-fly zone; it subsequently realized the peril of power vacuum in the Northern Iraq populated by the Kurds. 

Recognition of this national security threat informed the Turkish parliament’s decision to deny the U.S. the deployment of its troops to Turkey in 2003. While the Bush administration assigned the Kurds of Northern Iraq the role of a natural ally in its plan to overthrow Saddam Hussein, which was not at all groundless given the Iraqi dictator’s systemic persecution of the ethnic minority, Turkey did not differentiate between the domestic Kurdish separatists and the Iraqi Kurds. As we have recently seen, in the eyes of Turkey, Syrian Kurds are no different, either. 

One may argue that a sovereign Kurdish state formation will not necessarily ignite devastating internal insurgencies in Turkey, which means that Turkey’s disenchantment with the U.S. cannot be explained in terms of the U.S. support of the Kurds. The realist approach, however, deals not with what constitutes an objective danger to a state’s physical survival, but rather with what a state, rightfully or not, conceives of as such. If the Turkish government was in fact not genuine in its suspicion about the links between the Turkish terrorists of PKK and the Syrian YPG (People’s Protection Units), Turkey would have never opposed the U.S. and Russia, risking to incur largely detrimental economic sanctions from the former and disastrous proxy hostilities from the latter, by carrying out the offensive into north-eastern Syria. Given that Turkey did invade the Syrian territory controlled by the Kurdish militias, the perceived prospective benefits of this action had outweighed the possible costs. Therefore, it follows that Turkey’s perception of the Kurdish separatist threat is grounded in rationally realist calculations.

A Neglected Ally

The U.S. all too often neglects the needs of other states, irrespective of how amicable its relations with them are, which confirms Thucydides’ “the strong do what they can, the weak suffer what they must” observation. This power dynamic, however, gets a little tricky when the weak decide to assuage their future suffering. Turkey’s decision not to allow the U.S. troops on its soil right before the U.S. invasion of Iraq is a case in point. As we have seen, the security threat considerations contributed to this incident of an unusual Turkish disobedience. However, the ramifications of the similar scenario from the past were factored in, too. I mentioned the losses which the developing economy of Turkey had to bear after going along with the UN sanctions of Iraq in 1990. It is worth mentioning that Turkey, despite all the grandiloquent promises by the U.S., was never compensated. 

Quite rightfully, during his 2002 visit to DC, the newly elected Prime Minster Erdogan pointed out the economic costs associated with the ousting of Saddam Hussein’s regime, hinting at a hefty sum of financial reimbursement by its American ally if Turkey was to agree to the U.S. plan. The Bush administration judged Turkey’s position as “taking advantage of an ally” and did not reconsider the initial offering. When the unfavorable decision came along, however, the Americans were taken by complete surprise, as if Turkey was not expected to ever go beyond the boundaries of a narrow U.S.-assigned role. When the U.S. media launched a smear campaign targeting the Turkish elites, Erdogan perceived it as the official position of Washington and even made such a remark at one of the following high-profile meetings with President George Bush. 

Weak states can sacrifice their interests in an attempt to cater to the needs of a strong state, on whose support, both financial and political, they rely. In absence of such support, however, it is foolish to anticipate the same level of commitment. Besides, when the USSR collapsed, the underlying premise of the U.S.-Turkey alliance faded into oblivion, which rendered the Turkish position in negotiating with the Western powers sturdier. Hence, it now did not risk losing the military support of the U.S., a factor that had been acting as political deterrent of a sort.

Erdogan’s Neo-Ottoman Inclinations

While in the 1990s, Turkey could satisfy its imperial fantasies with the idea of pursuing Pan-Turkism, especially after the emergence of newly independent Central Asian states of Turkic heritage, its geopolitical ambitions have swollen quite significantly over the past decade. Pan-Turkism was superseded by Neo-Ottomanism, which draws on the glorious history of Turkey that unified the Islamic world under its reign. 

Erdogan’s “Zero Problems with Neighbors” doctrine of foreign affairs, which in 2004, was touted as the optimal path for the Western-style development of Turkey and its only shot at accession to the European Union, has by now, turned into “No Friends Abroad” reality. This reality started looming increasingly large, when the reason behind Turkish elites’ westernizing efforts – the solemn promises of Western leaders about Turkey’s euro integration – proved ill-conceived.  It seems that the almost subservient status of his country coupled with vanishing hopes for euro integration due to Germany’s strong opposition to the idea have had their implications on the way Erdogan conceptualized of his country’s place in the international arena.

While the Neo-Ottoman mode of foreign policy had little effect on Turkey’s international behavior prior 2016, after the attempted coup, Erdogan has ramped up the anti-Western rhetoric. Despite there being a paltry evidence of the U.S.-based Fethullah Gulen’s direct involvement in plotting the coup, Erdogan took it as quite an explicit personal attack from the U.S. He, however, managed to emerge victorious out of the bloody quelling of the unease by playing the standard “enemies are closer than ever before” card and pointing to the U.S. as the main beneficiary of a regime change in Turkey. The Turkish president has since taken a number of Islam-oriented measures to reshape the social structure of its country that had hitherto lived up to Kemal Ataturk’s legacy. This has resonated extremely well with the ever-growing conservative faction of the Turkish population, with Erdogan’s legitimacy now hinging not only on successful islamist reforms domestically, but also a set of foreign efforts at restoring the justice to the “Islamic civilization” at large. This, in turn, has been the driving force behind the deployment of forces to Libya to support the current Islamist government, public remarks regarding the oppression of Palestinians and Uyghurs, challenging the U.S. decision to relocate the embassy to Jerusalem, and active involvement in the recent Karabakh War that supposedly returned “the historical land of Muslims.” Needless to say, the U.S., let alone the powerful Israeli lobby that has a considerable weight in shaping the U.S. foreign policy, have not been appreciative of the emerging dominant Middle Eastern force which not simply acts in its own interests but is also driven by the idea of reviving its imperial influence. 

Is Joe Biden a Source of Hope?

Although Joe Biden is expected to bring multilateralism back into the U.S. foreign policy, which will entail an enhanced international cooperation, his presidency presents bleak prospects for the betterment of the relations between the U.S. and Turkey. As we saw, the factors that put strain on Turkey-U.S. relations are too profound to be toned down by a more outward-looking administration. While Trump could afford to unconcernedly withdraw the U.S. troops from Syria, effectively throwing the Kurds under the bus, Biden’s internationalist mode of foreign policy is likely to take its allies more seriously. While this may be a great news for the Kurds in Syria, the Turkish-U.S. alliance may suffer another blow. That said, Turkey needs a reliable friend if it is to take the Neo-Ottoman aspirations seriously. Given its troubling track record of discord with almost every one of the geopolitically powerful states, including China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S., this will not be an easy task. It is almost certain that Turkey will eventually find itself in a situation where it should choose a current frenemy to become a full-fledged ally. Who will it be?

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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