World, Analysis

Turkey and the US: past, today and tomorrow

US stance on PKK/PYD does not fit letter, spirit of the Turkish-American relationship in NATO

Turkey and the US: past, today and tomorrow

By Tarik Oguzlu


The dynamics of Turkey’s relationship with the U.S. have ebbed and flowed since Turkey’s entry to NATO in 1952. Despite facing the existential Soviet challenge, Turkey and the U.S. have been through challenging times in their relationship during the Cold War era.

The infamous Johnson letter sent to the Turkish prime minister in 1964, the American withdrawal of Jupiter missiles from Turkey, as a result of a unilateral decision, in 1962, the American economic and military embargo imposed on Turkey in 1975, and the clandestine American support to the military coup in 1980 were some of the issues poisoning bilateral relations.

On the other hand, Turkey’s transition to liberal democracy in the early 1950s; its staunch support for the U.S.-led containment policy towards the Soviet Union; its contributions to European security; as well as its pursuit of a pro-Western foreign policy in the Middle East during much of the Cold War seem to have strengthened Turkey’s place in the Western community on security and identity grounds.

The end of the Cold War, the emergence of non-Western centers of power, the gradual erosion of the western liberal order and the new strategic openings in Turkey’s neighborhood have set in motion new dynamics in bilateral relations over the last quarter-century.

It would not be wrong to argue that the last three decades have witnessed Turkey’s attempts at increasing its strategic autonomy in foreign and security relations while benefiting from its Western connections.

A more pragmatic and interest-driven logic appears to have shaped Turkey’s approach to the West more profoundly than an ideational rationality sanctifying the preservation of Turkey’s western identity at all costs.

This trend has gained more salience during the reign of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) over the last fifteen years.

The more emphasis the AK Party governments have placed on Turkey’s “strategic autonomy” and the closer the U.S. has got to Turkey’s vicinity through its military involvements in the Middle East, the more tension has arisen in the bilateral relations between Turkey and the U.S.

Shrinking world

The transformation of the “alliance-based” relationship first to “strategic partnership” in the late 1990s and then to “model partnership” in the late 2000s seems to have now entered a new phase with the Donald Trump administration adopting more of a “transactional” approach toward Turkey.

Similar to other members of NATO and many emerging powers, Turkey has been persistently trying to develop its economic and strategic relations with non-Western powers.

The globalization process and the shrinking of the world seem to dictate a more global and interest-driven outlook in the foreign policies of many states, Turkey being no exception.

The latest manifestation of this emerging trend in global politics can be best seen in President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visits to Russia, India and China before his final stop in Washington to meet Trump for the first time after he won the presidential election in November last year.

Whether or not Erdogan wanted to deliver the message that Turkey is not alone in its strategic options, such a multi-dimensional and multi-directional foreign policy outlook seems to be the order of the day.

It is of vital importance that Turkey’s improving relations with Russia and China not come at the expense of its decades-old institutional relations with Western actors, through both NATO and the EU.

The density, scope and institutional thickness of Turkey’s economic and strategic relations with Western actors can in no way be compared to its burgeoning relations with Russia, China and other emerging powers.

The gradual erosion of the ideational glue in Turkey’s relations with the West should not lead us to conclude that prospective memberships in the Eurasian Economic Union, BRICS or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization would compensate Turkey’s estrangement from the key pillars of the Western community.

Washington visit

That said, the latest visit of Erdogan to Washington and his upcoming visit to Brussels toward the end of May will reveal the determination of Turkish leadership to preserve the gains of Turkey’s Western connections.

However, for Turkey’s relationship with Western actors to remain on solid grounds, particularly with the U.S., the latter would do well to respect Turkey’s priorities in Syria.

Unlike the U.S., Turkey borders the Middle East and whatever happens there is bound to have direct consequences on Turkey’s national interests, of which the preservation of Turkey’s internal societal peace and territorial integrity stand out.

Turkey describes the ouster of the Assad regime as a must in order for all the negative consequences of the never-ending civil war in Syria to come to an end.

Even if this cannot be achieved soon, the fight against Daesh, a bloody terrorist organization, should not be waged in cooperation with other terrorist organizations, the PKK and its sister organization in Syria, the PKK/PYD.

This point was strongly underlined by Erdogan during the press conference he held together with Trump after their one-to-one meeting in the White House.

The American military support to PKK/PYD forces for the retaking of Raqqah from Daesh runs the risk of these weapons ending up in the hands of the PKK.

Another risk is that the strengthening of PKK/PYD’s political and administrative autonomy in a post-Daesh Syria might offer a sanctuary to PKK units in northern Syria.

Similar to what happened in northern Iraq in the wake of the U.S.-led wars against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1991 and 2003, northern Syria might end up becoming the new military sanctuary of the PKK.

Syrian Kurds

This is anathema to Turkey. Neither Sinjar in northern Iraq nor anywhere in northern Syria should become the new Kandil for the PKK.

It is just too early to say -- based on leaks from the bilateral meeting in the White House -- whether the Americans have acquiesced to Turkey’s rationale and decided to continue their war against Daesh in closer military cooperation with Turkey instead of the PKK/PYD.

But still the image that the U.S. seems poised to project regarding the PKK despite Turkey’s continuous objections does not fit the letter and spirit of the Turkish-American relationship as per their NATO alliance.

For the two sides to overcome the problem of trust in their relations, the Americans would do well to stop giving military aid to the PKK/PYD and extradite Fetullah Gulen to Turkey.

In return, Turkey can try to do its best to make a distinction between the PKK/PYD and the Syrian Kurds who do not support them.

It is in Turkey’s national interest to make it possible for the Syrian Kurds to see their future in closer economic and political cooperation with Turkey rather than jockeying for extra-regional support for their parochial ethnic aspirations.

Similar to how it has transformed its relations with the Kurds of northern Iraq, Turkey’s adoption of a more liberal-integrationist approach rather than a realist-exclusionary one would better suit its interests in this case.

Turkey is quite adamant in its conviction that the war in Syria must end very soon because the longer it lingers, the more its vital national interests are jeopardized.

If global and regional powers see the continuation of the civil war in Syria in their interests, then no one should doubt that Turkey would take unilateral steps to clear its border of all terrorist elements.

[Tarik Oguzlu is a professor of political science and international relations at Antalya International University]

* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.

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