Rocky Road Ahead For US-Turkey Relations

Once regarded as a beacon of modernity and Westernization, Turkey has long been the closest Muslim ally of the United States in the Middle East. This cooperation spanned not only defense and economic partnership, but also translated into positive sentiment among the American and Turkish public for each other’s nations.

US-Turkey Relations Are At A Major New Low

To say the least, things have changed. The situation has worsened drastically as regional politics have evolved in an unforeseen manner. Starting from disagreements over the support for different rebel groups to the Kurdish question, the cracks in the US-Turkey relationship have been widening for some time now. These cracks were given a major boost when Ankara decided to buy Russian jets after Congress halted Turkey’s participation in its F-35 fighter jet program.

What further hastened the collapse of an already crumbling relationship was when Ankara announced its offensive into northeastern Syria against the Kurdish forces this fall. This elicited a strong reaction from the members of US foreign policy community. While US President Donald Trump tweeted that he had ordered the withdrawal of US troops to allow Turkish forces to carry on their operation, his message wasn’t free from a threat as the President wrote that he would “totally destroy and obliterate” Turkey’s economy if Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s actions were “off-limits”. 

US Recognition Of The Armenian Genocide

Another nail in the coffin came last week when the US Senate unanimously adopted a resolution recognising the Armenian genocide in the early 20th century by the Ottoman Turks. Needless to say, this didn’t sit too well with Ankara. 

“History will note these resolutions as irresponsible and irrational actions by some members of the US Congress against Turkey. They will go down in history as the responsible party for causing a long lasting damage between [the] two nations,” Fahrettin Altun, Turkey’s Communications Director tweeted. 

Erdogan’s position has been to leave the issue to historians rather than taking a political stand on the matter. In a tit-for-tat move, the Turkish president threatened to recognize the genocide of Native Americans at the hands of white European settlers. 

Punishing Turkey For Buying Russian Missile Defense Tech

Making relations even worse, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week passed a bill that seeks to impose sanctions on Russia for its Syria offensive and the previous purchase of Russian S-400 missile systems.  

As of now, there is a clear divide between the Democratic Congress and the White House, with the two parties playing good cop, bad cop vis-a-vis Ankara. On the one hand, Trump has showed his penchant for Erdogan, a fellow strongman, while on the other, the Democratic House has a totally different opinion, even cutting across partisan lines. 

In fact, the US President has time and again thrown his weight behind his Turkish counterpart, most recently trying to stall the recent Senate resolution. But Erdogan doesn’t enjoy the same popularity among other 2020 contenders. 

2020 Dems On Erdogan And Turkey

Take for example Bernie Sanders, who remarked in the wake of Syria offensive that Turkey is no longer an ally. Meanwhile Joe Biden during a recent Democratic debate said: “What I would do is I would be making it real clear to Assad that in fact where he’s going to have a problem because Turkey is the real problem here. And I would be having a real lockdown conversation with [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and letting him know he’s going to pay a heavy price for what he has done. Now pay that price.”

The Military And Economic Importance

However, this is too important a relationship to let it go sour so easily. Not only do the two countries trade around $20 billion worth of goods, they also have a strategic defense partnership whose dissolution would have far-reaching consequences on the wider region. 

As Washington pursues the policy of outsourcing Middle East’s security to local players, it will need close partnerships with nations there. Turkey, in many ways, happens to be the perfect candidate. Not only does it have the strongest military in the neighborhood and status as a fellow NATO ally, Ankara also hosts key American bases that are crucial to the US military’s presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. These bases, for a long time, have served core US interests and act as a transit point for troops en route to the Middle East. Ankara obviously realizes that very well and quite recently signaled it will close the US bases at Incirlik and Kurecik if necessary. 

“When necessary, we will discuss with all our delegations, and if necessary, we may close Incirlik [air base in southern Adana province] and Kurecik [radar station in eastern Malatya province],” Erdogan said in a recent televised interview.

“We regret that the polarization in US domestic politics has had negative consequences for us and that some groups abuse developments about our country for their own interests in order to weaken [President Donald] Trump,” he added.

Who Else Can Replace Turkey As A Regional Ally?

A look at alternative options leaves Washington with a rather insignificant list. Its long-time partner Israel is no nowhere near as equipped or interested to engage in the already-existing mess, while Saudi Arabia’s militarydespite its purchase of billions of dollars in US weapons and equipment⁠—is unreliable, especially given the despotism reigning in the kingdom.

Against such a limited backdrop then, it becomes crucial for the United States and Turkey to reassess the trajectory of their relationship. A good starting point would be some synergy between the Trump administration and the House, but given the recent impeachment developments, that’s a highly unlikely scenario. Perhaps even some sort of engagement between the two countries’ parliaments is a good idea and would help establish some common ground and no-go zones, which would help to begin to plug the stark divide that exists today.