The Issues Facing the Turkish – US Partnership After the Election

Despite some low lying tensions, and the inevitable once in a decade diplomatic spat, the Turkish – American relationship has been incredibly durable. Each decade, however, has seen its fair share of ups and downs. In the 1960s, the Turks felt betrayed by the American pressure to withdraw the Jupiter missile from Turkish territory, in the 1970s the Turkish invasion of Cyprus prompted an American arms embargo, in the 1980s Turkey refused to join the embargo of Iran during its war with Iraq, during the 1990s there were tensions about Turkey’s treatment of Iraqi Kurds in refugee camps on the border, and in the 2000s the Turkish Parliament refused to let the U.S. use its territory to invade Iraq, Turkey refused to enforce U.S. unilateral trade sanctions against Iran, and American troops captured a team of Turkish special forces operating in Iraqi Kurdistan.

While relations had already begun to improve slightly towards the tail end of George W. Bush’s term in office, the election of Barack Obama – and his subsequent efforts to repair the Turkish – U.S. alliance – has paved the way for closer ties. Since the start of the Arab revolts, ties have grown stronger, owing mostly to shared interests and the close personal relationship between Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan. Now that Obama has been re-elected (which was surely a relief in Ankara), the two sides are likely to continue to cooperate closely on a number of issues . The issues – and how each side reacts to the differences they have – will likely shape the tone and tenor of the relationship  during the next four years. I have laid out what I think will be some of the most interesting issues moving forward.

1) Syria: Turkey has been agitating for a multi-lateral intervention for months, arguing that the international community has the responsibility to protect the Syrian people being slaughtered by Bashar al Assad. Erdogan has, on numerous occasions, expressed frustration at the United States’ refusal to intervene. The U.S. has recently stepped up its efforts to consolidate the disparate and dysfunctional Syrian opposition, organizing a meeting of Syrian nationals in Doha to replace the Syrian National Council. Turkey, up until recently, had worked closely with the SNC and had made tremendous efforts to try and unify the group. What will happen if the American efforts fail, and the Syrian opposition remains divided? For now, Turkey appears willing to accept the American backed approach; however, things could change rapidly if the U.S. backed efforts are unsuccessful. And what will happen if the U.S. does not intervene in Syria?

2) Turkish Kurds and the PKK: Unfortunately, Turkey’s treatment of its Kurdish minority is not a high priority item for U.S. policymakers. While the U.S. prods Turkey to pursue diplomatic means of ending the insurgency, Washington has not made it a point of emphasis to pressure Turkey to make any sweeping changes. The United States has, however, offered to step up its support for Turkey’s military efforts to combat the PKK. This has included an offer to provide the same intelligence techniques used to find and kill Osama bin Laden. Turkey turned down this offer, but has made clear that it wants to purchase armed American Predator drones. Presumably, Turkey would use these to target the PKK. The difference between the Turkish approach and the American offer is about control – namely who is flying the drone and who pushes the button. Thus far, the United States has only been willing to share real time drone feeds from a fleet of unarmed predators that operate from inside of Turkey. The drones are piloted by American contractors at a military base outside of Ankara dubbed the data fusion cell. Turkish officers are stationed with the American pilots and direct the predators movement. The United States, for numerous reasons, has opted not to sell Turkey its own fleet of armed drones. This has rubbed many in Ankara the wrong way. The issue will likely come up again. Obama has said he supports the Turkish request, but has made clear that the U.S. Congress is unlikely to green light the arms sale.  Privately, I assume, that Obama is wary of setting a precedent and does not want to provide Turkey with armed drones. Therefore, he has opted to take a hands off approach and not pressure Congress to sign off on the deal. How will Turkey react in the future, if Obama choose to follow the same hands off policy? This issue is complicated further by the current state of relations with Israel – Ankara’s former provider of unarmed drone technology. Will Ankara look elsewhere, perhaps to China, for its future drones? Will it continue the development of an armed variant of the ANKA? And lastly, how does Turkey plan to use armed drones? And what will Washington’s reaction be if Turkey starts targeting PKK leaders in Iraqi or Turkish territory? Tangentially, what will the reaction to Washington’s assistance be in Turkey’s Kurdish regions and in neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan?

3) Turkish nationalism: Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan has made it clear that he wants the country to implement a strong centralized Presidential system in time for the 2014 election. Erdogan, who has already served as Prime Minister for 10 years, would presumably be the AKP’s nominee. Erdogan remains popular and his party received 50 percent of the vote in Turkey’s last election. Erdogan has successfuly built up his popularity and vote totals through a consolidated effort to expand the AKP’s political base. At the outset, the AKP was able to cobble together a group of conservative voters and liberals eager to see a move towards “more democracy” – i.e. greater liberalism. Over the years, the AKP’s base has grown, but the liberals have become disillusioned and fled the party. Erdogan, therefore, has tacked to the nationalist right. His rhetoric and policies reflect this political shift. This has led Erdogan to take a harder line on Turkey’s Kurds. The AKP’s liberalist party line is no more and the party seems to be out of ideas. They are running on rhetoric and the accomplishments of their first seven years (2002 – 2009). How the U.S. handles Turkey’s transition to a Presidential system will be a big test for relations. More importantly, how Erdogan would respond to any American criticism could also dampen the current period of warm relations. This includes, Turkey’s appalling record on press freedom and potential criticisms about Turkey’s democratic backslide by U.S. government agencies and U.S. NGOs.

4) Iran: Despite supporting Iran’s right to enrich, and refusing to mandate the implementation U.S. unilateral sanctions, Turkey remains wary of Iran’s nuclear program. Between 2009 – 2011, Washington and Ankara had fundamental differences about how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program. The United States favored a combination of strong sanctions and multi-lateral negotiations. Ankara just favored diplomacy. Turkey’s argument was simple – sanctions don’t work, they empower the hardliners, they negatively and disproportionately affect the citizenry, they enrich the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp, and put you (i.e. – the United States) on a path to military action. Instead, Turkey offered unconditional diplomacy, greater cultural and economic integration, and gentle prodding.  Since the collapse of a Turkish and Brazilian fuel swap deal, and the spread of the Arab revolts to Syria and Bahrain, Turkey’s approach to Iran has changed. While still shunning military action, Ankara has dramatically scaled back its vocal support of Iran’s enrichment program, and avoided criticizing the U.S. sanctions policy.

Turkey has also accused Iran of supporting the PKK (a rehash of Turkey’s policy in the 1980s and 1990s) and for fomenting sectarian tension in Iraq. The tone and tenor of the Iran-Turkey relationship has changed; however, the Turkish-Iranian partnership is complicated and nuanced. The two continue to cooperate in other areas, and their history suggests that the two neighbors will find a way to overcome their mutual antagonisms and cooperate in areas of mutual interest. With the nuclear negotiations likely to resume between Iran and the P5+1 shortly after the election, Turkey will be tangentially affected by their outcome. The nature of that outcome – whether it be military action, a negotiated settlement, or the status quo – will loom large for Turkish – U.S. relations.

5) An AKP split: Turkey, for the past decade, has enjoyed almost 10 years of economic growth. Despite a downturn in 2009, Ankara has been able to weather the global economic crisis and continue to implement policies for economic growth. However, the AKP’s handling of the Syrian issue, Erdogan’s growing authoritarian tendencies, and the uptick in violence between the Turkish state and Kurdish insurgents have dented the AKP’s political armor. Prime Minster Erdogan continually finds himself advocating polices, or making bombastic statements, that rub Turkey’s President – Abdullah Gul – the wrong way. Gul is eligible to run for president in 2014 and, according to recent polling data, is more popular than Erdogan. What will happen if Erdogan and Gul have a falling out and the two men decide to compete for the same seat in 2014? What would this mean for the AKP? And how would the U.S. react to the prospect of a return to a time in Turkey where the Parliament lacks a dominant political party?

6) Israel and the Arab States: As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, Israel had been Turkey’s primary supplier of drones before the Mavi Marmara incident. Israel and Turkey have, at different points in the past, hinted that they would like to mend ties. However, Israel’s refusal to apologize and Turkey’s hardline rhetoric have prevented progress on the issue. While Israel has expressed a willingness to “express regret” and pay reparations, they remain unwilling to lift the Gaza blockade. Turkey has maintained that ties will only normalize after Israel apologizes (explicitly and not just express regret), pay reparations, and lift the blockade. More recently, Erdogan has leveraged the growing Turkish anger at Israel for populist political gain. Obama has deftly side-stepped the Turkish – Israel rift and has settled on a policy of de-coupling the two issues. However, the U.S. Congress has noticed and have used the issue to make arms sales to Turkey more difficult.

Turkey has also worked hard to engage with the new leadership in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. Despite not embracing the idea of the “Turkish Model”, Ankara has made clear that it is willing to assist in the region’s democratic transition. Naturally, this involved depeening ties with the region’s more conservative leadership. Turkey, therefore, has a much more nuanced view of local political parties – like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Tunisia’s Enahda-  than some in the United States. Will Ankara’s embrace of conservative – Islamist rooted – political parties prompt a return to the “who lost Turkey” nonsense? And will Ankara’s embrace of the region’s conservative political parties – combined with its Israel bashing – usher in a return to the 2009-2011 rhetoric suggesting that Turkey was turning its back on the West? I suppose that the U.S. State Department will be nuanced in its approach, but the rhetoric and actions are used by other actors to influence some segments of U.S. policy.

In any case, the Turkish – American partnership will – without any doubt – survive. The two continue to support similar regional policies and share many of the same security threats. Turkey is a NATO member and the home to 60 – 70 American nuclear weapons. The United States has a strategic interest in engaging Turkey and coordinating closely with Ankara on regional issues. However, the two don’t always see eye-to-eye. (Why would they?) And Ankara does have some near term interests that will contrast and conflict with U.S. aims in the region.  Therefore, both sides should be prepared for areas of disagreement and work hard to continue to coordinate closely in areas of mutual interest.

About aaronstein1

I am an Istanbul based PhD Candidate a King's College London.
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