The US-Turkish Relations

Idrees M. Mohammed

The United States and Turkey are entering a honey moon. The bilateral relations are becoming “healthier” than ever. In tandem with landmark developments sweeping the region in which both countries share vital interests, they explore the mutual crucial need. While the so-called “Arab Spring” unleashes new realities, it creates novel challenges to the international and regional powers. The US troops on the other hand are withdrawing from Iraq. In the meantime, issues surrounding Iran witness further vagueness. Amid these scenarios, a close collaboration on a gamut of issues is appearing between the US and Turkey. The current security cooperation reminds one of the Cold War era of bilateral relations in the time it receives a special heed in both countries agendas.
The United States absorbed the geopolitical significance of Turkey during the early years of the Cold War. By late 1940s, the Truman Doctrine aimed at luring Turkey into the Western satellite. Together with Turkish participation in the Korean War, the NATO door was opened to Turkey at 1952. Accordingly, Turkey played its part in the struggle vis-à-vis the expansion of the Soviet Union.
However, the Turkish-American cooperation seemed to weaken by the time the influence of the Soviet Union was waning. The US also reduced the military assistances it had given to Turkey to making the decision makers in Ankara questioned the value of the bilateral relations. But the developments unfolding in the Balkans (Kosovo, Bosnia) and the Middle East (the First Gulf War) enforced the decision makers in Washington to weigh Turkey’s importance again. The relations had been directing into a special strategic partnership from then on.
On the very basis, both parties had been allowed to cooperate on a wide spectrum of planes. In addition to economic and other issues, they helped to promote peace and stability in the Caucasus and Central Asia, worked on security and fought “terrorism,” and maintained a watch on the shifts in Iraq including a close eye on fluxes correlated to Iraqi Kurdistan Region (KRG).
The 2003 US invasion on Iraq, however, caused big cracks in the relations. From the very beginning, Turkey vocalized a strong opposition to US proposal of invading Iraq. Ankara’s intensive efforts to dissuade the US were in vain to avert Baghdad, with which it “left no stone un-turned” to cooperate with the United Nations, from being toppled. Turkish Parliament as well did not succeed to pass a US measure allowing US troops to employ Turkish soil for opening northern front against the regime in Baghdad.
However the US’s failure to prevent Iran from expanding its contours of influence over Iraq and the region due to the invasion gave Turkey a headache. Besides, the invasion worsened Turkey’s security concerns. The PKK activities against Turkish targets increased. Willingly or unwillingly, Washington’s position regarding the PKK activities did not satisfy Ankara to making Turkish political circle complained. Despite this deterioration of relations, an underlying reconciling diplomacy was on the driving mode. The landmark positive outcome of the bilateral efforts to mend the relations appeared in November 2007 when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Washington. During his talks with the President of the United States George W. Bush, Erdogan gained the US support to his struggle against the PKK to signal a new page in bilateral relations.
For Turkey, the leave of Bush was a hopeful start of a better phase with the United States. The election of President Barack Obama was, hence, a welcoming event in Turkey. Though it sounded the new President has fresh policies for Turkey, some regional events posed difficulty to positive expectations and hopes. The relations between Turkey and Israel were deteriorating. Israel’s usual politics drove Erdogan furious. It made him to harshly slam it. On the other hand, Turkey was engaging in “Zero-problems with neighbors,” including Iran. The United States policy towards Tehran’s nuclear program proved to be a thorn in relations.
The dramatic events in the Arab world, lately, bring the United States and Turkey closer. The bilateral paramount interests in the region enforce them to engage in intensive contacts, work and respond closely and somehow coordinately towards developments. Both countries express support to pro-democracy uprisings, form international and regional chorus against the regimes, distribute and take over different roles in different situations. Indeed, the responses to Tunisian uprising cannot epitomize the alignment of mutual attitudes due to the swiftly developed events in Tunisia to make Turkey slowly coming up with a policy conclusion.
On Egypt, Erdogan is considered to be among the early leaders to call the former President of Egypt Hosni Mubarak to leave the office. Though Mubarak has not been welcomed in Ankara due to his discomfort about the expansionist sentiments of Turkey, Erdogan’s call only came after he had discussion with Obam who later on called on Mubarak to step aside. Libya is different. Being greatly skeptic about the future of Libya, Turkey initially refused the likelihood of foreign intervention in the country. It had huge amounts of investment in the construction sector in Libya. Thousands of Turkish workers, additionally, were on the ground while the country was going through the uprising. Nevertheless, Erdogan called on Col. Gaddafi to step down, joined the coalition forces and promised worth mentioning financial assistance to Libyan Transitional National Council (TNC).
Syria is a perfect instance of coordination between the United States and Turkey. Obama has for long scrambled to reckon Erdogan’s once close relations with al-Assad as an opportunity to yank Syria out of Iran’s orbit of influence. At the same time, Erdogan pretended he was able to practice strenuous pressure on Syria during the uprising. Credited Erdogan, Obama granted him the space to act on Syria. Reportedly, Erdogan stressed Obama to delay calling on Assad to step down. However, the complexity of the situation in Syria and the constant Syrian neglect to Turkish demands enforced Obama to go into action. What still remains is the intensive contacts between both. Recently, the leaders pledged to retain close coordination and establish attitudes alignment on Syria.
Amid these developments, the security concerns permeate among the political circles in Turkey and the United States. The opacity of the Iranian nuclear program and the US withdrawal from Iraq, in addition to other security matters the region witnesses including in Turkey, Ankara and Washington conduct high level security cooperation. On the verge of US troops’ withdrawal from Iraq, the interests of US and Turkey fall into jeopardy.
The already effective Iranian clout over Baghdad is claimed to consolidate. Though warned not to fill the vacuumed left by troops, Iran already welcomed the decision of withdrawal. Tehran would direct Iraqi politics towards the path it wills once the Iranian interests are threatened. However there is a limit to that, still Iran enjoys well-natured networks in Iraq. Besides, the region goes through chaos. There takes place a special roar in Iraq’s borders. In addition, Iraqi politics is fragile. The ethnic groups have their differences; the possibility of inter-sectarian war is high, critical disputes appear between the governments in Baghdad and Erbil, the de facto capital of KRG. Therefore, the country faces issues that endanger American and Turkish interests. For Turkey, the instability in Iraq has domino effects on Turkey from Turkish perspectives.
This complex amalgam of scenarios makes Turkey and the United States cooperate. Ankara and Washington work together to avert Baghdad from being an advanced Iranian puppet. Turkey pursues engagement with various Iraqi segments to fill the vacuum via spreading Turkish soft power. Actually Ankara challenges Iran’s upper hand in Baghdad. In a recent step, Ankara offered assistance to train Iraqi military. Following the withdrawal of troops, it would buttress the contacts with the NATO presence in Iraq. Supposedly, it will work intensively with KRG, an ally of US and Turkey, to enhance Turkish voice in Baghdad; that is to affect the process of decision making. In addition to strong coordination over Iraq, Turkey approved the deployment of NATO anti-missile defense system on its soil. A sophisticated NATO system of radar in Turkey is very important to the security strategy of NATO countries. The main task of the overall system is to contain the Iranian card of missiles.
The radar in Turkey gathers bits about launching missiles from Iran, and the NATO countries will share them. Indeed, such information would go to Iran’s enemy the “Zionist regime,” which would indirectly be a part of the system. On the other hand, the deployment of the system is a medium against Iran’s progressive power, more specifically its nuclear program. It potentially lays stress on Iran to re-engage in nuclear talks. Also, the system increases Turkey’s regional weight while Iran tries to expand its influence. Therefore, the deployment of the system can be said to be a part of US strategy to weaken Iran and maintain the balances of power in the region.
In return, the United States should do its part to satisfy Turkish security demands. Recently, Turkey was severely targeted by the militant Kurdish nationalist outfit, Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
The instability in Turkey’s domestic situation is partially against the United States interests especially on the verge of troops’ withdrawal from Iraq. For instance, it endangers Turkey’s relations with Iraqi Kurds. But due to Turkey’s good coordination with the US over Syria, the anti-missile system, and the allegations that regional countries would play the PKK as a trump card against Turkey, Washington would seem ready to help ease Turkish security concerns and in its fight against the PKK.
In this regard, the United States strongly condemned the PKK late attack on Turkish military targets. It is also providing military and intelligence assistance to Turkey. By deploying four of its Predators at Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base that would engage in a “surveillance mission,” US is trying to cultivate Turkish struggle against the PKK on one hand, and keeping a close eye on the developments taking place in Iraq on the other hand. However, this deal is separate from Turkish request to purchase drones from US. Principally agreed, Ankara plans to buy the larger and more modern version of Predators in order to establish a fleet of them on its territory. However, Turkey is yet sure if the Congress finally agrees. It already discussed plan B. That is it may rent them in order to circumvent a Congress vote.
The security grabs a special attention in US-Turkish relations. It plays a key role in approaching them, and furthering their relations. The opacity and fragility of the developments in the region cultivate mutual relations.
However, the evolution of political Islam in post uprisings, the wane of the US influence in the region, and the expansion of Turkey’s contours of influence tend to indicate the fact that Turkey and the West, the United States in particular, would have closer rapprochement and coordination. On the other hand, there are possible forces to cause cracks in relations. Israel is a strategic ally of the US. It was a close ally to Turkey also. Not anymore. The mutual relations are downgraded. Observers talked about a probable military confrontation between Israel and Turkey. Whatever the truth, Washington wants Turkey to re-establish constructive relations with Israel. Besides, Washington in past threatened to recognize the Armenian “genocide.” That is a unique scenario to increase Erdogan’s fury. Idrees M. Mohammed
Observer of Turkey’s Foreign Policy