The Future of US-Turkish Relations

Turkey is perhaps the most volatile player in a volatile part of the world.  President Erdogan continues to use the state of emergency after the failed coup attempt as an excuse to clamp down on his opposition.  A country once considered a growing economic power, the continued clampdown is now threatening those successes.  In 2017, Erdogan will likely use a referendum to formalize his already broad powers.  What does this mean for US-Turkish relations and NATO?

It is true that Turkey has used their army in the Balkans and today maintain 400 peacekeepers in Kosovo.  They have participated in anti-terrorism efforts and helped patrol the Horn of Africa against Somali pirates.  They deployed ships and planes in the NATO-led Libya mission.  And their 510,000-man standing army is second only to that of the US among NATO members.

Turkey is an important country geographically.  It is the gateway to the resource-rich Caucasus region and Caspian Basin and the Straits of Bosporus is one of the most important shipping straits in the world.  Several major natural gas and oil pipelines run through Turkey.  Given new fields opening in Central Asia and Europe’s penchant for Russian energy, Turkey takes on greater importance in European energy security.

And there lies the most important aspect regarding Turkey: Russia.  Turkey and Russia are not traditional friends, but enemies.  Since 1568, they have gone to war 12 times.  Nine of those times have been over the Crimea.  Russia is arming Syrian Kurds and recently reinforced 5,000 Russian troops in Armenia not that far from the Turkish border.  Recently, some members of the Russian Duma called for a renunciation of the 1921 Treaty of Brotherhood between Russia and Turkey.  Although unlikely to pass, it underscores the historical enmity between the countries, especially among the Russian elite.

Turkey has been on the receiving end of a Russian hacking exercise that threw a bad light on Berat Albayrat, the Turkish minister of energy and Erdogan’s son-in-law.  After Turkey downed a Russian jet in 2015, sanctions against Turkey cost the country an estimated $737 million.  The recent assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey has been used as an excuse by Erdogan for further crackdowns.  Although both countries brokered a cease fire in Aleppo, Turkish cross-border raids against ISIS terrorists have operated dangerously close to Russian operatives in northern Syria.  After the assassination, cooler heads seemed to prevail.  But there is no mistaking the fact that Russia has historical ties to the Kurds in Turkey and Putin can cause trouble at a moment’s notice.

US-Turkish relations started to go south in 2003, the year Erdogan seized power.  Ankara refused to allow the US to attack Iraq from the north that year.  After prolonged negotiations with Bush, they allowed Americans to use the Incirlik air base.  When Obama decided to launch attacks against ISIS from that base, another series of prolonged talks led to that eventuality. Turkey, which has the most to lose given the ISIS insurgency, insisted that the US do its bidding.  Meanwhile, Turkey allowed the passage of ISIS terrorists across the border with impunity and did little to stem the flow of oil pilfered by ISIS and used to finance their operations.  To add insult to injury, after the failed coup last year, Erdogan blamed the United States.  As a result, anti-American sentiment is rising in Turkey.

After an anti-mining exercise in the eastern Mediterranean sponsored by Turkey, and including Pakistan, they allowed a Pakistani frigate to pass into the Black Sea to visit the Novorossitsk Russian naval seaport.  Many wondered whether this action was signaling a Turkish desire to look to Russia in the Black Sea.  That area has been tense after the Russian annexation of the Crimea and the arrival of US warships.  The answer came when Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim announced that Turkey would, in fact, strengthen ties with Russia on the Black Sea.

Then there is Iran.  This is a rivalry that dates back centuries ever since the Persian and the Byzantine Empires fought over control of Iraq and Syria.  They have managed to keep the peace for over 200 years, but that peace is shaky given recent events which pit Turkey against Iran in Syria by proxy.  This Shiite-Sunni rivalry may very well undo the ties they have forged over the past 200 years.

A recent plan worked out between Turkey, Iran and Russia regarding Syria would divide that country into informal zones where Assad would remain in power for a few years.  This would allow regional autonomy within some federal structure ruled over by Assad’s Alawite sect.  Of course, this would require rebels and Assad accepting such a deal and, eventually, the Gulf States and the United States.  Again, the United States is relegated to the sidelines.

Most ominously and the root of the problems is Erdogan’s systematic dismantling of the secularism of Ataturk in just over a decade.  He has done so with little mercy for his opponents.  The country’s political and educational system is being filled with conservative Muslims.  A growing number of students are now being forced to attend Islamic high schools.  Their placement is mandatory, not voluntary and even the son of Ankara’s rabbi was forced to attend such a school.  Just as Ataturk engineered Turkey’s society, Erdogan is attempting the same thing top down as an Islamic society.  And he clearly discriminates against those who will not fall in line.

Most importantly, about half the population adores Erdogan and the other half loathes him.  He has developed a cult of personality around being the underdog and forced into authoritarian measures while winning office democratically.  The opposition is not unified- a collection of leftists, secularists, liberal Muslims, social democrats and Kurds.  Each has their own agenda.  There is little common ground among them.  Meanwhile, Erdogan “reforms” the school system, jails journalists, attacks the business community through tax audits and cracks down on peaceful demonstrations.

The Trump administration must realize that keeping Turkey in the West’s orbit is very important and that the primary obstacle to that is Russia.  They are encircling Turkey trying to isolate them from the West through a program of soft power, diplomacy and cooperation.  In effect, Putin is telling Turkey that their future lies not in the West, but somewhere else.  After all, after applying for EU membership, that body has dragged their feet and repeatedly set up roadblocks against membership.  Some of it is justified, but some of it is based on an unrealistic belief that Turkey should be a liberal democracy like most of Western Europe.  For a Muslim country pre-Erdogan, that is the best they could get, but Erdogan has taken Turkey in a different direction since.

Erdogan is certainly an authoritarian ruler, but we have dealt with such leaders in the past in that region without bringing relations to the brink.  There are areas of mutual concern that need to be strengthened, and differences that need to be resolved.  But believing that Turkey is a shining example of democracy that could be a model for the Middle East is wishful thinking.  Religion will win out over politics every time.